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The Mirror and the Light (Wreckage (I))

London, May 1536

Once the queen’s head is severed, he walks away. A sharp pang of appetite reminds him that it is time for a second breakfast, or perhaps an early dinner. The morning’s circumstances are new and there are no rules to guide us. The witnesses, who have knelt for the passing of the soul, stand up and put on their hats. Under the hats, their faces are stunned.

But then he turns back, to say a word of thanks to the executioner. The man has performed his office with style; and though the king is paying him well, it is important to reward good service with encouragement, as well as a purse. Having once been a poor man, he knows this from experience.

The small body lies on the scaffold where it has fallen: belly down, hands outstretched, it swims in a pool of crimson, the blood seeping between the planks. The Frenchman – they had sent for the Calais executioner – had picked up the head, swaddled it in linen, then handed it to one of the veiled women who had attended Anne in her last moments. He saw how, as she received the bundle, the woman shuddered from the nape of her neck to her feet. She held it fast though, and a head is heavier than you expect. Having been on a battlefield, he knows this from experience too.

The women have done well. Anne would have been proud of them. They will not let any man touch her; palms out, they force back those who try to help them. They slide in the gore and stoop over the narrow carcass. He hears their indrawn breath as they lift what is left of her, holding her by her clothes; they are afraid the cloth will rip and their fingers touch her cooling flesh. Each of them sidesteps the cushion on which she knelt, now sodden with her blood. From the corner of his eye he sees a presence flit away, a fugitive lean man in a leather jerkin. It is Francis Bryan, a nimble courtier, gone to tell Henry he is a free man. Trust Francis, he thinks: he is a cousin of the dead queen, but he has remembered he is also a cousin of the queen to come.

The officers of the Tower have found, in lieu of a coffin, an arrow chest. The narrow body fits it. The woman who holds the head genuflects with her soaking parcel. As there is no other space, she fits it by the corpse’s feet. She stands up, crossing herself. The hands of the bystanders move in imitation, and his own hand moves; but then he checks himself, and draws it into a loose fist.

The women take their last look. Then they step back, their hands held away from them so as not to soil their garments. One of Constable Kingston’s men proffers linen towels – too late to be of use. These people are incredible, he says to the Frenchman. No coffin, when they had days to prepare? They knew she was going to die. They were not in any doubt.

‘But perhaps they were, Maître Cremuel.’ (No Frenchman can ever pronounce his name.) ‘Perhaps they were, for I believe the lady herself thought the king would send a messenger to stop it. Even as she mounted the steps she was looking over her shoulder, did you see?’

‘He was not thinking of her. His mind is entirely on his new bride.’

‘Alors, perhaps better luck this time,’ the Frenchman says. ‘You must hope so. If I have to come back, I shall increase my fee.’

The man turns away and begins cleaning his sword. He does it lovingly, as if the weapon were his friend. ‘Toledo steel.’ He proffers it for admiration. ‘We still have to go to the Spaniards to get a blade like this.’

He, Cromwell, touches a finger to the metal. You would not guess it to look at him now, but his father was a blacksmith; he has affinity with iron, steel, with everything that is mined from the earth or forged, everything that is made molten, or wrought, or given a cutting edge. The executioner’s blade is incised with Christ’s crown of thorns, and with the words of a prayer.

Now the spectators are moving away, courtiers and aldermen and city officials, knots of men in silk and gold chains, in the livery of the Tudors and in the insignia of the London guilds. Scores of witnesses, none of them sure of what they have seen; they understand that the queen is dead, but it was too quick to comprehend. ‘She didn’t suffer, Cromwell,’ Charles Brandon says.

‘My lord Suffolk, you may be satisfied she did.’

Brandon disgusts him. When the other witnesses knelt, the duke stayed rigid on his feet; he so hated the queen that he would not do her that much courtesy. He remembers her faltering progress to the scaffold: her glance, as the Frenchman says, was directed over her shoulder. Even when she said her last words, asking the people to pray for the king, she was looking over the head of the crowd. Still, she did not let hope weaken her. Few women are so resolute at the last, and not many men. He had seen her start to tremble, but only after her final prayer. There was no block, the man from Calais did not use one. She had been required to kneel upright, with no support. One of her women bound a cloth across her eyes. She did not see the sword, not even its shadow, and the blade went through her neck with a sigh, easier than scissors through silk. We all – well, most of us, not Brandon – regret that it had to come to this.

Now the elm chest is carried towards the chapel, where the flags have been lifted so she can go in by the corpse of her brother, George Boleyn. ‘They shared a bed when they were alive,’ Brandon says, ‘so it’s fitting they share a tomb. Let’s see how they like each other now.’

‘Come, Master Secretary,’ says the Constable of the Tower. ‘I have arranged a collation, if you will do me the honour. We were all up early today.’

‘You can eat, sir?’ His son Gregory has never seen anyone die.

‘We must work to eat and eat to work,’ Kingston says. ‘What use to the king is a servant who is distracted, merely for want of a piece of bread?’

‘Distracted,’ Gregory repeats. Recently his son was sent off to learn the art of public speaking, and the result is that, though he still lacks the command that makes for rhetorical sweep, he has become more interested in words if you take them one by one. Sometimes he seems to be holding them up for scrutiny. Sometimes he seems to be poking them with a stick. Sometimes, and the comparison is unavoidable, he seems to approach them with the tail-wagging interest a dog takes in another dog’s turds. He asks the constable, ‘Sir William, has a queen of England ever been executed before?’

‘Not to my knowledge,’ the constable says. ‘Or at least, young man, not on my watch.’

‘I see,’ he says: he, Cromwell. ‘So the errors of the last few days are just because you lack practice? You can’t do a thing just once and get it right?’

Kingston laughs heartily. Presumably because he thinks he’s making a joke. ‘Here, my lord Suffolk,’ he says to Charles Brandon. ‘Cromwell says I need more practice in lopping heads.’

I didn’t say that, he thinks. ‘The arrow chest was a lucky find.’

‘I’d have put her on a dunghill,’ Brandon says. ‘And the brother underneath her. And I’d have made their father witness it. I don’t know what you are about, Cromwell. Why did you leave him alive to work mischief?’

He turns on him, angry; often, anger is what he fakes. ‘My lord Suffolk, you have often offended the king yourself, and begged his pardon on your knees. And being what you are, I have no doubt you will offend again. What then? Do you want a king to whom the notion of mercy is foreign? If you love the king, and you say you do, pay some heed to his soul. One day he will stand before God and answer for every subject. If I say Thomas Boleyn is no danger to the realm, he is no danger. If I say he will live quiet, that is what he will do.’

The courtiers tramping across the green eye them: Suffolk with his big beard, his flashing eye, his big chest, and Master Secretary subfusc, low-slung, square. Warily, they separate and flow around the quarrel, reuniting in chattering parties at the other side.

‘By God,’ Brandon says. ‘You read me a lesson? I? A peer of the realm? And you, from the place where you come from?’

‘I stand just where the king has put me. I will read you any lesson you should learn.’

He thinks, Cromwell, what are you doing? Usually he is the soul of courtesy. But if you cannot speak truth at a beheading, when can you speak it?

He glances sideways at his son. We are three years older, less a month, than at Anne’s coronation. Some of us are wiser; some of us are taller. Gregory had said he could not do it, when told he should witness her death: ‘I cannot. A woman, I cannot.’ But his boy has kept his face arranged and his tongue governed. Each time you are in public, he has told Gregory, know that people are observing you, to see if you are fit to follow me in the king’s service.

They step aside to bow to the Duke of Richmond: Henry Fitzroy, the king’s bastard son. He is a handsome boy with his father’s fine flushed skin and red-blond hair: a tender plant, willowy, a boy who has not yet grown into his great height. He sways above them both. ‘Master Secretary? England is a better place this morning.’

Gregory says, ‘My lord, you also did not kneel. How is that?’

Richmond blushes. He knows he is in the wrong, and shows it as his father always does; but like his father, he will defend himself with a stout self-righteousness. ‘I would not be a hypocrite, Gregory. My lord father has declared to me how Boleyn would have poisoned me. He says she boasted she would do it. Well, now her monstrous adulteries are all found out, and she is properly punished.’

‘You are not ill, my lord?’ He is thinking, too much wine last night: toasting his future, no doubt.

‘I am only tired. I will go and sleep. Put this spectacle behind me.’

Gregory’s eyes follow Richmond. ‘Do you think he can ever be king?’

‘If he is, he’ll remember you,’ he says cheerfully.

‘Oh, he knows me already,’ Gregory says. ‘Did I do wrong?’

‘It is not wrong to speak your mind. On selected occasions. They make it painful for you. But you must do it.’

‘I don’t think I shall ever be a councillor,’ Gregory says. ‘I don’t think I could ever learn it – when to speak and when to keep silence, when I should look and when I should not. You told me, the moment you see the blade in the air, then she is dying – at that moment, you said, bow your head and close your eyes. But I saw you – you were looking.’

‘Of course I was.’ He takes his son’s arm. ‘It would be like the late queen to pin her head back on, pick up the sword and chase me to Whitehall.’ She may be dead, he thinks, but she can still ruin me.

Breakfast. Fine white loaves, wine of head-spinning strength. The Duke of Norfolk, the dead woman’s uncle, gives him a nod. ‘Most corpses wouldn’t fit in an arrow chest, eh? You’d have to hack the arms off. Do you think Kingston’s getting past it?’

Gregory is surprised. ‘Sir William is no older than yourself, my lord.’

A bark of laughter: ‘You think men of sixty should be put out to grass?’

‘He thinks they should be boiled for glue.’ He puts an arm around his son’s shoulders. ‘He’ll soon be boiling his father, won’t you?’

‘But you are far younger than my lord Norfolk.’ Gregory turns to the duke, the better to inform him. ‘My father is in sound health, if you except his special fever, which he got when he was in Italy. It is true he works long hours, but he believes long hours never killed anybody, he often says so. His doctor says you couldn’t fell him with a cannonball.’

By now the witnesses have seen the late queen nailed down and are packing in at the open doors. The city officers jostle, keen for a word with him. One question in their mouths: Master Secretary, when shall we see the new queen? When will Jane do us the honour? Will she ride through the streets, or sail in the royal barge? What arms and emblems will she take as queen, and what motto? When may we notify the painters and artificers and set them to work? Will there be a coronation soon? What present can we make her, that will find favour in her eyes?

‘A bag of money is always acceptable,’ he says. ‘I do not think we will see her in public till she and the king are married, but that will not be long. She is pious in the old style and any banners or painted cloths depicting the angels and saints, and the Holy Virgin, will be well-accepted by her.’

‘So,’ says the Lord Mayor, ‘we can look out what we have had in store since Queen Katherine’s time?’

‘That would be prudent, Sir John, and save the city’s funds.’

‘We have the life of St Veronica in panels,’ an elderly guildsman says. ‘On the first, she stands weeping by the route to Calvary, as Christ bears his cross. On the second –’

‘Of course,’ he murmurs.

‘– on the second, the saint wipes the face of our Saviour. On the third, she holds up the bloody cloth, and there we may see the image of Christ, printed clearly in his precious blood.’

‘My wife observed,’ says Constable Kingston, ‘that this morning the lady left aside her usual head-dress, and chose the style the late Katherine favoured. She wonders what she meant by it.’

Perhaps it was a courtesy, he thinks, from a dying queen to a dead one. They will be meeting this morning in another country, where no doubt they will have much to tell.

‘Would that my niece had imitated Katherine in other particulars,’ Norfolk says. ‘Had she been obedient, chaste and meek, her head might still be on her shoulders.’

Gregory is so amazed that he takes a step back, into the Lord Mayor. ‘But my lord, Katherine was not obedient! Did she not defy the king’s will year after year, when he told her to go away and be divorced? Did you yourself not go down to the country to enforce her, and she slammed into her chamber and turned the key, so you were obliged to spend the twelve days of Christmas shouting through a door?’

‘You’ll find that was my lord Suffolk,’ the duke says shortly. ‘Another useless dotard, eh, Gregory? That’s Charles Brandon over there – the mighty fellow with the big beard. I am the stringy fellow with the bad temper. See the difference?’

‘Ah,’ Gregory says, ‘I remember now. My father enjoyed the tale so much, we performed it as a play at Twelfth Night. My cousin Richard played my lord Suffolk, wearing a woolly beard to his waist. And Mr Rafe Sadler put on a skirt and played the queen, insulting the duke in the Spanish tongue. And my father took the part of the door.’

‘I wish I had seen it.’ Norfolk rubs the tip of his nose. ‘No, I tell you, Gregory, I honestly do.’ He and Charles Brandon are old rivals, and enjoy each other’s embarrassments. ‘I wonder what you’ll play this Christmas?’

Gregory opens his mouth and closes it again. The future is a curious blank. He, Cromwell, intervenes, before his son attempts to fill it. ‘Gentlemen, I can tell you what the new queen will take as her motto. It is Bound to Obey and Serve.’

There is a murmur of approbation that runs right around the room. Brandon’s big laugh booms out: ‘Better safe than sorry, eh?’

‘So say we all.’ Norfolk tips back his canary wine. ‘Whoever crosses the king in the years ahead, gentlemen, it will not be Thomas Howard here.’ He stabs a finger into his own breastbone, as if otherwise they might not know who he is. Then he slaps Master Secretary on the shoulder, with every appearance of comradeship. ‘So what now, Cromwell?’

Don’t be deceived. Uncle Norfolk is not our comrade or our ally or our friend. He is slapping us to appraise how solid we are. He is eyeing the Cromwell bull-neck. He is wondering what sort of blade you’d need, to slice through that.

It is ten when they break away from the company. Outside, sunlight is dappling the grass. He walks into shadow, his nephew Richard Cromwell by his side. ‘Better see Wyatt.’

‘You are well, sir?’

‘Never better,’ he says flatly.

It was Richard himself who, a few days back, had walked Thomas Wyatt to the Tower, without display of force, without armed men: taking him into custody as easily as if they were taking a riverside stroll. He had requested the prisoner be shown every courtesy, and be kept in a pleasant gatehouse chamber: to which the gaoler Martin now leads the way.

‘How is this prisoner?’ he asks.

As if this prisoner were just anyone, instead of what Wyatt is – as dear to him as any person now living.

Martin says, ‘It seems to me, sir, he is in much disquiet of mind about those five gentlemen who lost their heads the other day.’

The gaoler makes it sound incidental, like losing a hat. ‘I dare say Master Wyatt wonders why he was not among them. And so he paces, sir. Then he sits, a paper before him. He looks as if he will write, but not a word goes down. He doesn’t sleep. Up in the dead hour, calling for lights. Pulls up his stool to the table, sharpens his pen; six o’clock, broad day, you fetch in his bread and ale and there’s his paper blank and the candle still burning. Wasteful, that.’

‘Let him have lights. I will pay for what he needs.’

‘Though I say this – he is a very gentleman. Not proud like those we had over the other side. Henry Norris – “Gentle Norris”, they called him, but he spoke to us as if we were dogs. That’s how you can tell a true gentleman – when he is in peril of his life, he still speaks you fair.’

‘I’ll remember, Martin,’ he says gravely. ‘How’s my god-daughter?’

‘Rising two – can you believe it?’

The week Martin’s daughter was born he had been at the Tower to visit Thomas More. It was early days in their contest; he still hoped More would concede a point to the king and save his life. ‘You’ll stand godfather?’ Martin had asked him. He chose the name Grace: after his youngest daughter, dead some years now.

Martin says, ‘We cannot watch a prisoner every minute. I am afraid Mr Wyatt might destroy himself.’

Richard laughs merrily. ‘What, Martin, have you never had a poet in your prison? One who sighs heavy and sleeps short hours, and when he prays he prays in verse? A poet may be melancholy but I tell you, he will look after himself as well as the next man. He must have food and drink to tempt his appetite, and if he has an ache or a twinge you will hear about it.’

‘He writes a sonnet if he stubs a toe,’ he says.

‘Poets prosper,’ Richard says. ‘It is their friends who sustain the hurt.’

Martin announces them with a discreet tap, as if they were in a lord’s private suite. ‘Visitors, Mr Wyatt?’

The room is full of dancing light, and the young man sits at a table in full sun. ‘Move, Wyatt,’ Richard says. ‘The rays illuminate your scalp.’

He forgets how ruthless the young are. When the king says, ‘Am I going bald, Crumb?’ he says, ‘The shape of your Majesty’s head would please any artist.’

Wyatt runs his palm across his fine fair hair. ‘It’s going fast, Rich. By the time I am forty no woman will look at me except to try to crack my skull with an egg spoon.’

Wyatt could as easily laugh as cry this morning, and it would mean nothing either way. Still alive when five other men are dead, still alive and astonished to be so, he is poised on the edge of devastating pain – like a man who is teetering on a spike, a toehold his only support. It is a sort of interrogation method he has heard of, though never had need to perform. You rope the prisoner to a beam, his arms crossed behind his back: his body hangs in space, supported by this one exquisite inch. If he moves, or you jerk his foot away, his whole weight drops onto his arms and his shoulders are dislocated. That part of the procedure should be unnecessary. You don’t want to disable him; you just want to keep him there, balanced, till he has satisfied you with answers.

‘We have had our breakfast, anyway,’ he says. ‘Constable Kingston is such a blunderer that we expected mouldy bread.’

‘It is a novelty for him,’ Wyatt says. ‘A queen of England to behead, and five of her lovers. A man does not do it every week.’

He is swaying, he is swaying, on the spike: soon he will slip and cry out. ‘So it’s done, I suppose? Or you would not be here with me.’

Richard crosses the room. He stands over Wyatt and looks down at the nape of his bent neck; he rubs his shoulder, friendly and firm like a man with his favourite dog. Wyatt is unmoving, his face in his hands. Richard glances up: are you going to tell it, sir?

He inclines his head to his nephew: you tell it.

‘She made a brave end,’ Richard says. ‘She spoke short and to the point, asking forgiveness, praising the king’s mercy, and offering no extenuation.’

Wyatt looks up. His face is dazed. ‘She accused no one?’

‘It was not for her to accuse,’ Richard says gently.

‘But you know Anne’s spirit. And she was kept here long enough, she had time to think and plan. She must have thought,’ his blue eyes flick sideways, ‘here I lie a prisoner, and where is the evidence against me? She must have prayed for the five men who went out to die, and she must have wondered, why is Wyatt not one of them?’

‘Surely,’ he says, ‘she would not have wanted to see your head in the street? I know all love was lost between you, and I know she was a creature of supreme malice, but surely she would not have wished to add to the number of men she has ruined?’

‘I did not assume that,’ Wyatt says. ‘She might have thought it was justice.’

He wants Richard to lean forward, and place his hand firmly over Wyatt’s mouth.

‘Tom Wyatt,’ he says, ‘let us have an end of this. You may think confession would ease your mind, and if that is what you think, send for a priest, say what you must, get your absolution and pay him for silence. But do not for God’s sake confess to me.’ He adds, softly, ‘You have come so far. You have done the difficult thing. You spoke when you should speak. Now speak no more.’

‘You must not indulge yourself,’ Richard says. ‘It would be at our expense. My uncle has walked a knife-edge for you. The king’s suspicion of you was such that no one but my uncle could have dispelled it, for the king would not have listened, but killed you with the rest. Besides …’ He looks up. ‘Sir, may I tell him? The court did not need the evidence you gave us. Your name did not arise. The lady’s brother convicted himself out of his own mouth, sniggering at the king in the very face of the court, and saying that despite the valour he claims, Henry lacks all skill and vertu to do the deed with a woman.’

‘Yes,’ he says, to Wyatt’s incredulous face, ‘this is the fool George Boleyn was, and I had to deal with him for years.’

‘And George’s wife,’ Richard says, ‘made a written deposition against him, testifying she had seen him kiss his sister with his tongue in her mouth. Describing the hours they were alone together, behind a closed door.’

Wyatt has edged his stool back from the table. He raises his face to the sun and the light washes away all expression.

‘And Anne’s women,’ Richard says, ‘gave statements against her. All the comings and goings in the dark. So it was enough, without your help. They have witnessed her tricks these two years and more.’

Oh, Jesus, he thinks, let’s stop this now. He takes a wad of folded papers out of his jacket and drops them on the table. ‘Here is your testimony. Do you want to destroy it yourself, or shall I do it?’

‘I will,’ Wyatt says.

He thinks, Wyatt doesn’t trust me: still, even now. God knows, I have not played him false. This last week, hour by hour, he has traded for Wyatt’s life. What he has offered Henry is Wyatt’s knowledge of the accused queen. Whether the knowledge was carnal – he has never asked Wyatt that, and never will. He assured the king it was not – though not in so many words. If he has misled Henry, better not to know. He says to Wyatt, ‘I told your father I’d look after you. I have.’

‘Indebted,’ Wyatt says.

Outside, the red kites are skimming over the Tower walls. The king did not choose to display the heads of Anne’s lovers on London Bridge; in case he decides to ride through with his new wife, he wants to keep his capital tidy. The kites, therefore, are cheated of their prey; no doubt, he says to Richard, that’s why they’re yearning for Tom Wyatt.

Richard says, ‘You see how it is. A very proper man, Wyatt. Even his gaolers are in love with him. His pisspot admires him, for deigning to use it.’

‘Martin was angling to know what will happen to him.’

‘Aye,’ Richard says, ‘before he becomes too attached. And what will?’

‘He is safe where he is for now.’

‘Are the arrests finished? Was he the last?’

‘Yes, I think so.’

‘Is it over, then?’

‘Over? Oh, no.’

Thomas Cromwell is now fifty years old. The same small quick eyes, the same thickset imperturbable body; the same schedules. He is at home wherever he wakes: the Rolls House on Chancery Lane, or his city house at Austin Friars, or at Whitehall with the king, or in some other place where Henry happens to be. He rises at five, says his prayers, attends to his ablutions and breaks his fast. By six o’clock he is receiving petitioners, his nephew Richard Cromwell at his elbow. Master Secretary’s barge takes him up and down to Greenwich, to Hampton Court, to the mint and armouries at the Tower of London. Though he is a commoner still, most would agree that he is the second man in England. He is the king’s deputy in the affairs of the church. He takes licence to enquire into any department of government or the royal household. He carries in his head the statutes of England, the psalms and the words of the Prophets, the columns of the king’s account books and the lineage, acreage and income of every person of substance in England. He is famous for his memory, and the king likes to test it, by asking him for details of obscure disputes from twenty years back. He sometimes carries a sprig of dried rosemary or rue, and crumbles it in his palm as if inhaling the scent would help him. But everyone knows it is only a performance. The only things he cannot remember are the things he never knew.

His chief duty (it seems just now) is to get the king new wives and dispose of the old. His days are long and arduous, packed with laws to be drafted and ambassadors to beguile. He goes on working by candlelight through summer dusks, through winter sunsets when it is dark by half past three. Even his nights are not his to waste. Often he sleeps in a chamber near the king and Henry wakes him in the small hours and asks him questions about treasury receipts, or tells him his dreams and asks what they mean.

Sometimes he thinks he would like to marry again, as it is seven years since he lost Elizabeth and his daughters. But no woman would tolerate this kind of life.

When he gets home, young Rafe Sadler is waiting for him. He pulls off his cap at the sight of his master. ‘Sir?’

‘Done,’ he says.

Rafe waits, eyes on his face.

‘Nothing to tell. A prayerful end. The king?’

‘We hardly saw him. Went between bedchamber and oratory and spoke with his chaplain.’ Rafe is in the king’s privy chamber now, his liaison man. ‘I thought I should come in case you have any message for him.’

Verbal message, he means. Something better not committed to ink. He thinks about it. What do you say to a man who has just killed his wife? ‘No message. Get home to your wife.’

‘Helen will be glad to know the lady is beyond her misfortunes now.’

He is surprised. ‘She does not pity her, does she?’

Rafe looks uneasy. ‘She thinks that Anne was a protector of the gospel, and that cause is, as you know, near my wife’s heart.’

‘Oh, well, yes,’ he says. ‘But I can protect it better.’

‘And besides, I think, with women, when something happens to one of them, all of them feel it. They are more pitiful than us, and it would be a harsh world if they were not.’

‘Anne was not pitiful,’ he says. ‘Have you not told Helen how she threatened me with beheading? And she was planning, as we now know, to cut short the life of the king himself.’

‘Yes, sir,’ Rafe says, as if he is humouring him. ‘That was stated in court, was it not? But Helen will ask – forgive me, from a woman it is a natural question – what will happen to Anne Boleyn’s little daughter? Will the king disown her? He can’t be sure he is her father, but he can’t be sure he is not.’

‘It hardly matters,’ he says. ‘Even if Eliza is Henry’s child, she is still a bastard. As we now learn, his marriage to Anne was never valid.’

Rafe rubs the crown of his head so that his red hair stands up in a tuft. ‘So as his union with Katherine was not valid either, he has never been married in his life. Twice a bridegroom yet never a husband – has it ever happened to a king before? Even in the Old Testament? Please God Mistress Seymour will go to work and give him a son. We cannot seem to keep an heir. The king’s daughter by Katherine, she is a bastard. His daughter by Anne, she is a bastard. Which leaves his son Richmond, who of course has always been a bastard.’ He squashes on his hat. ‘I’m going.’

He skitters out, leaving the door open. From the stairs he calls, ‘I’ll see you tomorrow, sir.’

He gets up, shuts the door; but he lingers, his hand on the wood. Rafe grew up in his house, and he misses his constant presence; these days he has his own house, his own young family in it, new duties at court. It is his pleasure, to make Rafe’s career. He is as dear to him as a son could be, dutiful, dogged, attentive and – the vital point – liked and trusted by the king.

He resumes his desk. It is only May, he thinks, and already two queens of England are dead. Before him is a letter from Eustache Chapuys, the Imperial ambassador; though it is not a letter Eustache intended for his desk, and its news must be already out of date. The ambassador is using a new cipher, but it should be possible to see what he is saying. He must be rejoicing, telling the Emperor Charles that the king’s concubine is living her last hours.

He works at the letter till he can pick out the proper names, including his own, then turns to other business. Leave it for Mr Wriothesley, the prince of decipherers.

When bells are ringing for evening prayer across the city, he hears Mr Wriothesley down below, laughing with Gregory. ‘Come up, Call Me,’ he shouts; and the young man takes the stairs two at a time and strides in, a letter in his hand. ‘From France, sir, from Bishop Gardiner.’ To be helpful, he has opened it already.

Call-Me-Risley? It is a joke that dates from the time when Tom Wyatt had a full head of hair; from when Katherine was queen, and Thomas Wolsey ruled England, and he, Thomas Cromwell, used to sleep at nights. Call-Me skipped in one day to Austin Friars – a fine-drawn young man, lively and nervous as a hare. We took a look at his slashed doublet, feathered cap, gilt dagger at his waist; how we laughed. He was handsome, able, argumentative and prepared to be admired. At Cambridge Stephen Gardiner had been his tutor, and Stephen has much to teach; but the bishop has no patience, and something in Call-Me craves it. He wants to be listened to, he wants to talk; like a hare, he seems alert to what’s happening behind him, half-knowing, half-guessing, always on edge.

‘Gardiner says the French court is buzzing, sir. The gossip is that the late queen had a hundred lovers. King François is amused.’

‘I’m sure.’

‘So Gardiner asks – as England’s ambassador, what am I to tell them?’

‘You can write to him. Tell him what he needs to know.’ He considers. ‘Or perhaps a little less.’

The French imagination will soon supply any detail Stephen lacks: what the late queen did, and with whom, and how many times and in what positions. He says, ‘It is not good for a celibate to be excited by such matter. It is up to us, Mr Wriothesley, to save the bishop from sin.’

Wriothesley meets his eye and laughs. Now he is out of the realm, Gardiner depends on Call-Me for information. The master must await the pleasure of his pupil. Wriothesley has a position, Clerk of the Signet. He has an income, and a pretty wife, and basks in the king’s good graces; at this moment, he has Master Secretary’s attention. ‘Gregory seems happy,’ he says.

‘Gregory is glad to have got through the day. He has never witnessed such an event. Not that any of us have, of course.’

‘Our poor monarch,’ Call Me says. ‘His good nature has been much abused. Two such women no man ever suffered, as the Princess of Aragon and Anne Boleyn. Such bitter tongues. Such cankered hearts.’ He sits down, but on the edge of his stool. ‘The court is anxious, sir. People wonder if it is over. They wonder what Wyatt has said to you, that is not placed on record.’

‘They may well wonder.’

‘They ask if there will be more arrests.’

‘It is a question.’

Wriothesley smiles. ‘You are a master at this.’

‘Oh, I don’t know.’ He feels tired. Seven years for the king to get Anne. Three years to reign. Three weeks to bring her to trial. Three heartbeats to finish it. But still, they are his heartbeats as well as hers. The effort of them must be added to all the rest.

‘Sir,’ Call-Me leans forward. ‘You should move against the Duke of Norfolk. Work his discredit with the king. Do it now, while you have him at a disadvantage. The chance may not come again.’

‘I thought the duke was very pleasant to me this morning. Considering we were killing his niece.’

‘Thomas Howard will speak as pleasant to his foe as to his friend.’

‘True.’ The Duchess of Norfolk, from whom the duke is estranged, has often used the same words: or worse.

‘You would think,’ Call-Me says, ‘that with both Anne and his nephew George disgraced, he would creep away to his own country and be ashamed.’

‘Shame and Uncle Norfolk are not acquainted.’

‘Now I hear he is pressing for Richmond to be made heir. He reasons, if my son-in-law becomes king, and my daughter sits on the throne beside him, all England will be under my Howard thumb. He says, “Since all Henry’s three children are now bastards, we may as well prefer the male – at least Richmond can sit a horse and draw a sword, which is better than the Lady Mary, who is dwarfish and sick, and Eliza, who is still of an age to soil herself in public.”’

He says, ‘No doubt Richmond would be a fine king. But I don’t like the thought of this Howard thumb.’

Mr Wriothesley’s eyes rest on him. ‘The Lady Mary’s friends are ready to bring her back to court. When Parliament is called they expect her to be named heir. They are waiting for you to keep your promise. They expect you to turn the king her way.’

‘Do they?’ he says. ‘You astonish me. If I made any promise, it was not that.’

Call-Me looks rattled. ‘Sir, the old families united with you, they helped you bring the Boleyns down. They did not do it for nothing. They did not do it so Richmond could be king and Norfolk rule all.’

‘So I must choose between them?’ he says. ‘It seems from what you say that they will fight each other, and one party will be left standing, either Mary’s friends or Norfolk. And whoever has the victory, they will come after me, don’t you think?’

The door opens. Call-Me starts. It is Richard Cromwell. ‘Who were you expecting, Call-Me? The Bishop of Winchester?’

Imagine Gardiner, rising through the floor with a sulphur whiff; lashing out with his cloven hooves, sending the ink flying. Imagine drool running from his chin, as he upturns the strongboxes, and snouts through the contents with a rolling, fiery eye. ‘Letter from Nicholas Carew,’ Richard says.

‘I told you,’ Call-Me says. ‘Mary’s people. Already.’

‘And by the way,’ Richard says, ‘the cat’s out again.’

He hurries to the window, letter in hand. ‘Where is she?’

Call-Me beside him: ‘What am I looking for?’

He breaks the seal. ‘There! She’s running up the tree.’

He glances down at the letter. Sir Nicholas seeks a meeting.

‘Is that a cat?’ Wriothesley is amazed. ‘That striped beast?’

‘She has come all the way from Damascus in a box. I bought her from an Italian merchant for a price you would not believe. She is supposed to stay indoors, or she will breed with the London cats. I must look out for a striped husband for her.’ He opens the window. ‘Christophe! She’s up the tree!’

What Carew proposes is a gathering of the dynasts: the Courtenay family, with the Marquis of Exeter leading them, and the Pole family, where Lord Montague will represent his kin. These are the families nearest the throne, descendants of old King Edward and his brothers. They claim to speak for the king’s daughter Mary, to represent her interests. If they cannot rule England themselves, as Plantagenets once did, they mean to rule through the king’s daughter. It is her bloodline they admire, the inheritance from her Spanish mother Katherine. For the sad little girl herself, they care much less; and when I see Mary, he thinks, I will tell her so. Her safety does not lie that way, with men who live on fantasies of the past.

Carew, the Courtenays, the Poles, they are papists every one. Carew was the king’s old comrade-in-arms, and Queen Katherine’s friend too, in the days when those positions were compatible. He sees himself as the mirror of chivalry, and a favourite of fortune. To Carew, to the Poles, to the Courtenays and their supporters, the Boleyns were a crass blunder, an error now cancelled by the headsman. No doubt they assume Thomas Cromwell can be cancelled too, reduced to the clerk he used to be: a useful man for getting money in, but dispensable, a slave that you trample as you stride up the stairway to glory.

‘Call-Me is right,’ he says to Richard. ‘Sir Nicholas is taking a lofty tone with me.’ He holds the letter up. ‘These people, they expect me to come to their whistle.’

Wriothesley says, ‘They expect your service. Or they will break you.’

Below the window, all the young persons at Austin Friars are milling, cooks and clerks and boys of every sort. He says, ‘I think my son has taken leave of his senses. Gregory,’ he calls down, ‘you cannot catch a cat in a net. She has seen you now – back away.’

‘Look at Christophe shaking the tree,’ Richard says. ‘Stupid little fucker.’

‘Take heed of this, sir,’ Call-Me begs. ‘Because this last week …’

‘It is natural she keeps escaping,’ he says to Richard. ‘She is tired of her celibate life. She wants to find a prince. Yes, Call-Me? This last week, what?’

‘People have been talking of the cardinal. They say, look at what Cromwell has wreaked, in two years, on Wolsey’s enemies. Thomas More is dead. Anne the queen is dead. They look at those who slighted him, in his lifetime – Brereton, Norris – though Norris was not the worst …’

Norris, he thinks, was good to my lord – to his face. A taker and a user, was Gentle Norris: a hypocrite. He says, ‘If I wanted revenge on Wolsey’s enemies, I would have to strike down half the nation.’

‘I only report what people are saying.’

‘Young Dick Purser’s here,’ Richard says. He leans out of the window. ‘Get hold of her, boy, before we lose her in the dark.’

‘They ask,’ Wriothesley says, ‘who was the greatest of the cardinal’s enemies? They answer, the king. So, they ask – when chance serves, what revenge will Thomas Cromwell seek on his sovereign, his prince?’

Below in the darkening garden, the cat-hunters raise their arms as if imploring the moon. High in the tree, the cat is a soft shape visible only to the educated eye: limbs dangling, she is perfectly at one with the branch on which she lies. He thinks of Marlinspike, the cardinal’s cat. He had brought him to Austin Friars when he was still small enough to carry in a pocket. But when Marlinspike came of age, he ran away to make his fortune.

I have risen above this, he thinks: this day, this waning light, these snares. I am the Damascene cat. I have travelled so far to get here, and nothing they do disturbs me now, nor disquiets me, high on my branch.

And yet Wriothesley’s question seeps into him, and leaves in his mind a chilly trickle of dismay, like water creeping into a cellar. He is shocked: first, that the question can be asked. Second, because of who asks it. Third, that he does not know the answer.

Richard turns back into the room: ‘Sir, what’s Christophe saying below?’

He translates: the boy’s argot is not easy. ‘Christophe swears that in France they always catch cats in a net, any child can do it, he will be pleased to demonstrate if we give him full attention.’ He says to Wriothesley, ‘This question of yours –’

‘Do not take it ill –’

‘– does it come from Gardiner?’

‘Because,’ Richard says, ‘who but the bloody buggering Bishop of Winchester would come up with a question like that?’

Call-Me says, ‘If I report Winchester’s words, that is all I do. I do not speak for him, or on his behalf.’

‘Good,’ Richard says, ‘because otherwise, I’d have to pull your head off, and cast it up the tree with the cat.’

‘Richard, believe me,’ Wriothesley says, ‘if I were the bishop’s partisan, I would be with him on his embassy, not here with you.’ Tears well into his eyes. ‘I am trying to make some sense of what Master Secretary intends. But all you care about is the cat, and trying to frighten me. You are making me pick my way through thorns.’

‘I see the wounds,’ he says gently. ‘When you write to Stephen Gardiner, tell him I will see what I can get him by way of spoils. George Boleyn had a grant of two hundred pounds a year out of the revenues of Winchester. For a start, he can have that back.’

He thinks, that will not mollify the bishop. It’s just a token of goodwill for a disappointed man. Stephen hoped that when Anne Boleyn fell she would take me with her.

‘You talk of the cardinal’s enemies,’ Richard says. ‘Now I would put Bishop Gardiner among them. Yet he is not harmed, is he?’

‘He thinks he is harmed,’ Wriothesley says. ‘After all, he was the cardinal’s confidant, till Master Cromwell shouldered him aside. He was Secretary to the king, till Master Cromwell whipped his office from under his feet. The king sent him out of the realm, and he knows Master Cromwell contrived it.’

True. All true. Gardiner knows how to do damage, even from France. He knows how to scratch the skin and poison the body politic. He says, ‘Any notion that I hold a grudge against my sovereign – it is some fantasy out of the bishop’s sick brain. What have I, but what my king gives me? Who am I, but who he has made me? All my trust is in him.’

Wriothesley says, ‘But shall I carry a message to Nicholas Carew? Will you meet him? I think you ought.’

‘Placate him?’ Richard says. ‘No.’ He draws the window shut. ‘My money is on Purser to catch her.’

‘Mine is on the cat.’ He imagines the world below her: through the prism of her great eye, the limbs of agitated men unfurl like ribbons, yearning through the darkness. Perhaps she thinks they are praying to her. Perhaps she thinks she has climbed up to the stars. Perhaps the darkness falls away from her in flecks and sparks of light, the roofs and gables like shadows in water; and when she studies the net there is no net, only the spaces between.

‘I think we should have a drink,’ he tells Wriothesley. ‘We will have lights. And a fire, by and by. Send Christophe in, when he comes from the garden. He will show us how the French start a blaze. Perhaps we will burn Carew’s letter, Mr Wriothesley, what do you think?’

‘What do I think?’ It is almost a snarl worthy of Gardiner himself. ‘I think, Norfolk is against you, the bishop is against you, and now you are going to take on the old families as well. God help you, sir. You are my master. You have my service, and you have my prayers. But by the holy bones! Do you think these people brought the Boleyns down so you could be cock of the walk?’

‘Yes,’ Richard says. ‘That’s exactly what we think. It may not have been their intention. But we aim to make that the result.’

How steady Richard’s arm, stretching to hand him the glass. How steady his own, accepting it. ‘Lord Lisle sends this wine from Calais,’ he says.

‘Confusion to our enemies,’ Richard says. ‘Good luck to our friends.’

Wriothesley says, ‘I hope you can tell them apart.’

‘Call-Me, warm your poor shaking heart.’ He casts a glance at the window, sees a faint fogged outline of himself. ‘You can write to Gardiner and tell him he has money coming. Then we have ciphers to break.’

Someone has brought a torch into the garden below. A dusky flicker fills the panes. His shadow in the window raises a hand; he inclines his head to it. ‘Drink my health.’

That night he dreams the death of Anne Boleyn, in panels. In the first he stands watching as she walks to the scaffold, wearing her clumsy gable hood. In the second she kneels in a white cap while the Frenchman raises his sword. In the last, her severed head, smothered in linen, bleeds its image into the weave.

He wakes as the cloth is shaken out. If her face is imprinted, he is too dazed to see it. It is 20 May 1536.

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