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The Mirror and the Light (Wreckage (II) – Part 2)

He and Call-Me go downstairs. One fights as a unit, he thinks. He misses Rafe, always at his right hand. But if the king wants Rafe’s presence he must have it. He says, ‘Did I? Broke a jaw? Whose?’

‘The cardinal used to tell about it,’ Wriothesley says happily. He passes into the sunshine. ‘Sometimes it was an abbot, sometimes a petty lord. In the north somewhere.’

When this is over – however it ends – he will try to return the poems to their owners, though they don’t put their names to them. He pictures himself on a windy day, throwing them into the air so that they flap down Whitehall, sailing across the river and landing in Southwark: where they will be giggled at by whores, and used to wipe their arses. When he gets home he says to Gregory, ‘Never write verse.’

Bess Darrell had sent him a message: come to me at L’Erber. It is not surprising the Pole family should offer her shelter; she is a legacy from the late Katherine. But she must have kept it from them that she is carrying a child. The old countess would not want Wyatt’s bastard under her roof.

He finds Bess and Lady Salisbury sitting together, peaceful as St Ann and the Virgin in a book of hours. A strip of fine linen lies across their laps, and on it a needlework paradise, a garden of summer flowers. He greets the countess with elaborate courtesy – as perhaps he did not at their last meeting. He notes that Bess has not unlaced her bodices yet. She is a delicate woman; how long can she keep her secret?

The countess indicates her sewing: ‘I know that of your gentleness you interest yourself in the work we women do. You see I have found young eyes to help mine.’

‘I compliment you. I wish my flowers would bloom as fast.’

‘Your gardens are all new-planted,’ Lady Salisbury says sweetly. ‘God takes His time.’

‘And yet,’ Bess says, ‘He made the whole world in a week.’

He nods to her gravely; says to the countess, ‘I hear your son Reynold has been summoned by the Pope.’

‘Has he? It is more than I know.’

He has only just heard himself, and it may not be true. ‘I wonder what Farnese intends. He would not whistle him to Rome for a hand of Laugh and Lie Down.’

The countess looks enquiring. ‘It is a card game,’ Bess says. ‘For children.’

The countess says, ‘We do not know my son’s plans, any more than you do.’

‘Less.’ Bess merely breathes it, stirring the petals beneath her fingers.

‘You know the king wants him to come home?’

‘That is a matter that lies between Reynold and his Majesty. As I have explained – and his Majesty well accepts it, if you do not – neither I, nor my son Montague, knew in advance of his writings against the king. And we do not know where he is now.’

‘But he has written to you?’

‘He has. It is a letter that goes straight to a mother’s heart. He says that whoever observes the laws of this realm and this king is shut out of Heaven – even if they are tricked or coerced into obedience.’

‘But you are not tricked or coerced, are you? Your loyalty comes from gratitude.’

‘There is more,’ Margaret Pole says. ‘My son bids me cease dabbling in his affairs. He says I cast him off as a boy – that I had no use for him. It is true I sent him away from home to his studies. But my understanding was, I gave him to God.’ She lifts her chin. ‘Reynold severs his ties to us. He says we are damned by our obedience to Henry Tudor.’

He thinks, it is very sad he should write you such a letter. It is also convenient. The countess takes a neat loop of her thread and slips her needle into the cloth. ‘But you want to speak with Mistress Darrell.’ Rising, she slides the work into Bess’s lap, and murmurs a question not meant for his ears.

Bess says, ‘No, I trust my lord Privy Seal.’

‘Then so do I,’ the countess says.

He smiles. ‘Encouraging for me.’

Lady Salisbury draws together her skirts. Ah, she is cold to my charms, he thinks. Bess Darrell sits with bent head, and does not look up even when they are left alone, the door ajar. Her hood hides what Wyatt has seen, her hair of crisped gold. He had imagined Wyatt would only chase what flies; that the pursuit would interest him, but not the capture. Yet Bess looks not simply captured but tamed, a woman trapped by her own ill-luck. He looks after Lady Salisbury: ‘You may judge how far she trusts me. Not enough to close the door on us.’

Bess says, ‘She does not think you will throw me to the floor and ravish me. Perhaps she fears you will sit and whisper bad verses, and coax me into marriage.’

So she has heard about the Douglas affair. No doubt the gossip is everywhere. He says, ‘I have found a refuge for you. As I promised Wyatt. The Courtenay family will ask you to be companion to my lady marquise.’

‘Gertrude?’ She folds the linen on her lap; folds and folds it again, so it becomes a square, the needle inside. ‘But she doesn’t like you.’

‘She is in my debt.’

‘True. You could have brought her family down two years ago. What a forbearing man you are. I suppose you hold back, in the hope of a greater destruction. Queen Katherine always said, “Cromwell keeps his promises, for good or ill.”’ She looks away. ‘I know you kept your promise about Mary. I was in the room at Kimbolton when you made it. All I will say, my lord – beware of gratitude.’

I do not wonder, he thinks, that Wyatt cleaves to you. A jaundiced riddle sits as well on your lips as on his. ‘As for your condition, I leave to you what explanation you make. The Courtenays know what is owed to you. You helped Katherine in her last hour. It was you who wiped her death sweat. Now they boast of what they did for her, but they did nothing really. They will not press you for the man’s name. And if they do, and they don’t like it – they are still bound to you.’

‘They ought to like it,’ she says. ‘They are indebted to Wyatt and his testimony. Because it wrought this.’ She gestures around. ‘This land we live in now. England without Boleyn.’

‘Wyatt wrought nothing. His evidence was not needed.’

‘So you say. But then, you like to offer comfort, my lord. You pick your way over the battlefield with prayers for the wounded and water for the dying.’

‘It is true,’ he says simply. ‘I gave him the papers back so he could tear them up. He told me of the understanding between you, and I said I would find you a place of safety … I would offer you my own poor house, or any of my houses, but my counsellors – I mean those in my household who advise me, and have my interests at heart – have suggested to me –’

She laughs. ‘No, Lord Cromwell, I cannot lodge with you. An unmarried female, estranged from her family – your enemies would suggest such knavery – and you being the king’s Vicegerent, you would look no better than any lustful bishop, or Roman cardinal.’

He says, ‘The Courtenays do not know my part in this. Let us keep it so. Francis Bryan spoke to them for you. He has worked your salvation. He loves Tom Wyatt and admires him.’

‘I expect Francis is used to ridding himself of women,’ she says. ‘No, do not doubt me – I will take the chance, since you offer it. You have my gratitude during my life. You saved Tom Wyatt when he would not save himself.’

‘I unlocked the door,’ he says, ‘but it was you who made him walk out of his prison. If it were not for the child you carry, he did not care to live. Man or maid, this is a child of great power. It has already preserved its father from the axe.’

‘The child?’ she says. ‘It seems I was wrong about that.’

‘There is no child?’

‘No.’

‘Never was?’

‘I cannot be sure.’

‘Does Wyatt know you have deceived him?’

Fiercely she says, ‘He knows he’s still breathing.’

A silence. She unfolds her sewing, its whiteness flowering out across her skirts. She finds the needle, and examines it between finger and thumb, as if daring it to draw blood. She says, ‘Considering the result, you will understand my deceit.’

‘I like your deceit,’ he says. ‘It makes me think highly of you.’

‘You are right I need a refuge. No one wants me except Wyatt and he cannot have me. I have made him promises in my heart’s blood, and I count myself as well married as any woman in England, except he has a wife living.’

Amor mi mosse, he thinks: love moves me, love makes me speak.

‘Perhaps you want to stay here with Lady Salisbury.’

‘She can get another pair of eyes. And I think you are already provided with spies here. When I go to the Courtenays, what shall I do?’

‘You will live.’

‘But for you, Lord Cromwell – what shall I do for you?’

‘Write to me. Someone within the household will approach you. A servant. I will even send you the paper.’

‘And what shall I say?’

‘You will tell me who visits. If any of them plan to travel. Whether any of their ladies are breeding.’

She says, ‘I have no money.’

He has settled her gambling debts a time or two. The pious Katherine, even in her days of exile, played for high stakes, and she expected her household to pay out. ‘I will take care of that, if Wyatt cannot.’

She says, ‘I will be the judge of what passes among the Courtenays, and I will protect what is private. I shall tell you what touches the public weal. I shall tell you whatever it is in your interest to know.’

‘Thank you.’ He gets to his feet. ‘Bear in mind my field of interest is very wide.’

‘Before you go, let me show you my sewing.’

‘That would be pleasant,’ he says.

She holds up the work; she shows him how the Pole emblem, the pansy or viola, is worked in a border with the marigold. ‘They do it to encourage each other, and they give such work as tokens to their supporters. They are sewn into altar cloths, or made into cap badges. They gave one this last week to Ambassador Chapuys. The marigold stands for – well, I see you have arrived already – it stands for the Lady Mary, that exemplar of shining virtue. Look here,’ she indicates with the needle tip, ‘at how the flowers entwine. So may Reynold entwine himself about her body and heart.’

‘So was Lady Salisbury lying to me in toto this last hour or only in part?’

She glances at the door. ‘It is true Reynold has written her a letter.’

‘But surely the family have concocted it between them. It is a device, to shift blame away from them.’

‘It appears she is struck to the heart.’

‘That is how the king feels. Stung, dismayed, betrayed. They are prodigious efforts, these letters of Reynold’s. I marvel he does not write to me.’ He touches her hand. ‘Thank you,’ he says.

He can’t see Richard Riche framing a law against embroidery, but then he doesn’t need to. The laws are already capable of stretching to cover anything the Pole family have in mind – especially when you add in the new penalties against plotting to marry the king’s daughter. Nothing he has learned about the hopes of Lady Salisbury surprises him, but it’s useful to have the evidence stitched together. ‘I hope when that cloth is finished,’ he says, ‘the family will protect it from the light.’

Like the treasures of Heaven, he thinks, where no moth nor rust consumes.

She says, ‘I wonder where Anne Boleyn is now?’

It is not a question for which he came prepared. He imagines her whipping down some draughty hall of the hereafter, where the walls are made of splintered glass.

When he goes to see Jane the queen, he takes Mr Wriothesley with him. ‘Just in case there is another plot among the women. I shall trust only you from now on. If you see that anyone is married who should not be, point out the offender. Don’t try to be subtle. We’ve had enough of that.’

It is mid-morning, a broad summer light. The ladies have come from their devotions. Bess Oughtred, the queen’s widowed sister, is at her side. On her other hand sits Edward Seymour’s wife, Nan: Nan Stanhope, as she was before her marriage. She is not, of course, the wife who sinned with Old Sir John. That one is dead, and never mentioned at Wolf Hall. No gap is visible, where the Scottish princess should be. The ladies are settling to the task which has absorbed them for weeks – erasing the initial ‘A’ from satins and damasks, and replacing it with Jane’s initial, so she can wear the clothes of the late queen. A sympathetic murmur from Mr Wriothesley: ‘Will that false lady never be gone?’

‘She had a lot of clothes,’ Bess Oughtred says. ‘I remember sewing this one in.’ Her tone is low and absorbed; seed pearls shower from her scissors, and Nan is catching them in a silk box.

‘Praise God for generous seams,’ Nan murmurs. ‘Her present Majesty is broader than the other one.’ She flips Jane’s sleeve. ‘And broader still soon – God willing.’ Jane dips her head. Nan glances up, scissors poised: ‘We are glad to see handsome Mr Wriothesley.’

Call-Me blushes. Jane says to her sister, ‘Mr Wriothesley is the … thing of the Signet. Clerk of the Signet, I should say. And of course you know Master Secretary. Though he is now Lord Privy Seal.’

‘Instead?’ Bess Oughtred says.

He bows. ‘As well, my lady.’

Jane explains, ‘It is he who does everything in England. I did not understand that, till one of the ambassadors told me. He marvelled that one man could have so many posts and titles. It is a thing never seen before. Lord Cromwell is the government, and the church as well. The ambassador said the king will flog him on to work till one day his legs go from under him, and he rolls in a ditch and dies.’

Call-Me tries a change of tack. ‘My lady Oughtred, may we hope you will live at court now?’

Bess shakes her head. ‘My husband’s family want me back in the north. They want to keep hold of little Henry, and bring him up a Yorkshireman. And much as I wish to see my sister in her pomp, I don’t want the little ones to forget me.’

Jane is working on a private piece of sewing. The women have rules about these matters that men do not understand; perhaps it is unbecoming in a queen, to snip away her predecessor. She holds it up – a border of honeysuckles and acorns. ‘Nice for a country girl,’ she says.

He thinks, it is as Norfolk says, I will soon be so expert I will be able to ply the needle myself. ‘Majesty, I have a request, and perhaps you will not like it. I must meet with those ladies who served the late queen. We must invite them back to court.’ He feels, suddenly, very tired. ‘I need to ask them questions. It may be that misunderstandings have occurred. We must revisit certain matters that I wish were forgot.’

‘I pity Meg Douglas,’ Bess Oughtred says. ‘The king should have found a husband for her long ago. Leave any sweet thing unattended, and the Howards settle on it like flies.’

‘Who do you need?’ Nan asks him.

‘Who do you suggest?’

‘Mistress Mary Shelton.’

Shelton was clerk of the poetry book; it was she who decided which rhymes were saved and which suppressed, and knew how they were encoded.

‘And,’ Nan says, ‘George Boleyn’s wife.’

‘Lady Rochford is a very busy active lady,’ Mr Wriothesley says. ‘She remembers everything she sees.’

An image swims into his mind, clouded, as if from distance: Jane Seymour, padding softly through the apartments of the late Anne, her arms laden with folded sheets. Anne was not queen then; but she lived in expectation, and she was served like a queen. He remembers the white folds. He remembers the soft perfume of lavender. He remembers Jane, whose name he hardly knew, her dipped glance casting a lavender shade against the white.

Nan says, ‘I think it was Rochford who was witness to Meg’s marriage. She is not averse to seeing another woman ruined.’

Bess Oughtred is puzzled. ‘But she did not ruin her. She did not speak out.’

That is true. But as the other Bess – Bess Darrell – has recently pointed out, a proper, comprehensive wreckage takes work and deliberation. Meg’s disgrace, if it had come out earlier, would have been a mere coda to that of the late queen: wasted.

Nan says, ‘Meg and Shelton and Mary Fitzroy, they were always scurrying and hushing and spying. Of course we thought it was all …’ She bites her lip.

Bess says, ‘We thought it was Boleyn’s secrets they were keeping.’ She looks sobered. ‘De mortuis nil nisi bonum.’

He is astonished. ‘You know Latin, my lady?’

‘My sister didn’t listen in the schoolroom, but I did. Much good it brought me. Jane is raised high, and I am a poor widow.’

The queen only smiles. She says, ‘I don’t mind if Mary Shelton comes back to court. She is not envious or mean.’

And, he thinks, the king’s already had her, so that’s one less thing for you to worry about.

‘But Jane,’ Bess says, ‘you do not want Lady Rochford near you, surely? She joined with the Boleyns in mocking you. And she is a traitor’s wife.’

‘She cannot help that,’ Mr Wriothesley says.

‘But still.’ Bess is indignant. ‘I wonder the king asks such a thing of Jane.’

‘He doesn’t,’ the queen says. ‘The king never does an unpleasant thing. Lord Cromwell does it for him.’ Jane turns her head: her pale gaze, like a splash of cold water. ‘I am sure Rochford would like to have her place back. Lord Cromwell is in debt to her for certain advice, which she gave freely when he needed it.’

Nan says, ‘If Rochford comes back to court, she will never go again. We will never be rid.’

‘But never mind,’ Jane says. ‘You will be a match for her.’

Is it a compliment? Nan does not know. Bess says sharply, ‘Sister, do not be so humble. You forget you are Queen of England.’

‘I assure you, no,’ Jane murmurs. ‘But I am not crowned yet, so no one notices.’

‘All the realm notices,’ he says. ‘All the world.’

‘They know you even in Constantinople, madam,’ Mr Wriothesley says. ‘The Venetians have sent their envoys with the news.’

‘Why would they care?’ Jane says.

‘Princes like to hear of the household affairs of other princes.’

‘But Turkish princes have a dozen of wives each,’ Jane says. ‘If the king had been of their sect, he could have been married to the late queen, God rest her, and Katherine, God rest her, and at the same time to me, if he liked. For that matter, he could have been married to Mary Boleyn, and to Mary Shelton, and to Fitzroy’s mother. And the Pope could not have troubled him about it.’

Mr Wriothesley says feebly, ‘I do not think the king will turn Turk.’

‘That’s all you know,’ Jane says. ‘If you are going to him now, you will see he is wearing his special costume. He does not feel he wore it enough at the wedding. Try to be surprised.’

Nan says, ‘Surely Lord Cromwell cannot be surprised.’

Jane turns to her. ‘One time or other, before he had so much to do, Lord Cromwell used to bring us cakes. Orange tarts in baskets. When she was displeased with him, the queen threw them on the floor.’

‘Yes,’ he says. ‘And there were worse things she did. But nil nisi …’ He meets Bess Oughtred’s eye, and smiles.

As they leave the queen’s rooms he says, ‘Nan is wrong. I am not beyond astonishment. At Oughtred’s widow and her Latin, for one thing.’

He calls her ‘Oughtred’s widow’, in a distant way, as if he never thought of her. He pictures Sir Anthony, that veteran of the wars; he pictures his own dead wife. He thinks, the dead are crowding us out. Rather than not speak ill of them, how if we don’t speak of them at all? We don’t speak of them, we don’t think of them, we give their clothes to beggars and we burn their letters and their books? After they had left Tom Truth and descended the stair at the Bell Tower, Christophe had slapped the wall, thwack, thwack with his palm, as if to roust out any shades who were attempting to rest in peace. It’s two years since Bishop Fisher tottered down that stair, led to his execution. He was old, spent, frail; his body lay on the scaffold like a piece of dried seaweed.

A crush of petitioners, waiting outside the queen’s rooms, surges after him. ‘Lord Cromwell, a word!’ ‘Over here, sir!’ ‘My lord Privy Seal, something you should see.’ Papers are thrust at him, and the Thing of the Signet gathers them into his arms. He sees a man in young Richmond’s livery, and hails him. ‘How is my lord today?’

‘He is worse. We do not want to tell the king.’

‘I’ll tell him.’

‘The king should go,’ the man says. ‘He should go and see his son.’

The king is very tall in his turban. Since the triple wedding he has embellished it with a jewel and extra plumes. At his side is a curved dagger, its sheath inlaid not with the crescent moon, but with the Tudor rose.

He, Lord Cromwell, kneels before the king, with Call-Me beside him. They do not remark on his costume. There is a limit to how much awe a man can feign. ‘I was hoping to astonish you,’ Henry says, petulant. ‘But I hear the queen has prepared you.’

How fast a word travels, in a palace. ‘She did not mean to spoil it,’ he says.

Irritated, the king motions them to their feet. ‘You don’t think I have married a fool? She seems not to comprehend even ordinary things.’

He hesitates. ‘She is of that chastened spirit, sir, that never presumes to understand her betters. Your Majesty has ruled for many years, for which we thank God daily: whereas the queen lacks experience in worldly affairs.’

The king eases his silver belt. ‘I believe the ambassadors think she is plain.’

‘But why are they looking?’ He is impatient. ‘Chapuys is no judge of women.’

‘And the French envoys,’ Wriothesley says, ‘they are mostly in holy orders – they should be ashamed to state an opinion.’

Henry seems mollified. A mirror is half-hidden by a curtain; he takes a sidelong glance at himself and likes what he sees. ‘So,’ he says, ‘why have I sent for you?’

He takes a silk bag out of his pocket. ‘I wanted to ask your Majesty’s permission to give this to the Lady Mary.’

Henry empties the present from the bag. He turns it over and over and squints at the workmanship. In case the engraving is too delicate to decipher, Mr Wriothesley quotes the inscription.

‘In praise of obedience,’ Henry says. ‘Very apt. And you think my daughter will take the point?’ Without waiting for an answer, he says, ‘Am I working you too hard, Thomas? You should hunt with me this summer. And I shall keep my son by my side. I hope by the time I am ready to leave London he will be strong enough to ride.’

The king likes saying that: my son. He says, ‘Majesty, the duke’s household suggest you might go to St James’s.’

‘Is that what you advise?’

He feels enquiry ripple through the body of the Thing of the Signet; every fibre of Mr Wriothesley is alert. Such advice could breed consequences. For as Henry now says, ‘The nature of his illness may not have shown itself. If it should prove contagious –’

‘God forbid,’ Mr Wriothesley says.

Henry is looking down at the gift, cupped in his palm. ‘I like this so well, I think I shall give it to my daughter myself. You can find something else, can’t you?’

He bows. What choice has he? The king nods as they leave, his blue eyes mild. The emerald in his turban gleams, the eye of a false god, and his big pink feet in their velvet slippers look like pigs walking to market.

The ladies exiled from court must have been waiting with their clothes packed, because they are back in no time, and he is calling on them to welcome them. Mary Shelton reminds him of one of those virgins of Nikolaus Gerhaert’s carving: pink and white and dimpled, but with shrewd eyes. Though she is not a virgin, of course.

When Shelton had charge of the manuscripts that circulated among the dead queen’s slaves and admirers, she collated the riddles, jests and profane prayers, copying them and sometimes annotating them and deciding who could respond, with a verse or another riddle. Her editor’s hand was light, or she would have crossed out Tom Truth and all his work. He agrees with the dead queen: only Wyatt can do it.

He tells her, ‘I am sure your cousin the queen knew all about Meg and Tom Truth. So was she pleased, when she knew another of her Howard kin was rising in the world?’

‘No. But she was entertained.’

‘She didn’t think to give Lady Meg a warning?’

‘Why would she?’

He concedes that. Why would one woman help another? Mary Shelton says, ‘It is all my cousin Anne’s fault, I agree. It was she who taught us to be selfish, and to reach for our desires. Amor omnia vincit, she said.’

‘Perhaps for a season it did.’

‘Love conquers all?’ Poor gentle creature, she bends her head. ‘With respect, my lord, love couldn’t conquer a gosling. It couldn’t knock a cripple down. It couldn’t beat an egg.’

Shelton was going to be married to Harry Norris; at least, she thought so, until Anne told her, ‘If the king dies, Norris will marry me.’ She had built a little house for love, and it was flattened by one remark: now she lives in the wreckage. He asks, ‘What about Norfolk’s daughter? I know she was the lookout for Meg. She does not live with Richmond as his wife, does she? She has never been permitted. So does she not have a lover of her own?’

Shelton shakes her head. ‘Too frightened of her father. Wouldn’t you be?’

‘Insofar as I can think myself into her place,’ he says, laughing, ‘yes, I would. Where was Jane Rochford in all this?’

‘She’s on her way, isn’t she? Ask her yourself.’

‘I’m asking you.’

‘I will not say she was in the room on Meg’s wedding night. But I will say that she brought fresh linen.’

He holds up a hand. ‘No talk of linen. Meg Douglas is a maid. Intact, like Norfolk’s daughter. Clean as from her mother’s womb.’

‘I see,’ Mary Shelton says. ‘Be sure to apprise Jane Rochford. Tell her to rinse her memory clean.’

He thinks, why must you bed on white linen? God gives you a whole realm for your pleasures: you would be safer in the park against a tree.

Ahead of her return to court, the relict of George Boleyn has stated her demands. She specifies which rooms she would like, asks for stabling for two horses, and bed and board for herself, two maids, and a manservant. He sends a message to the royal household: give Lady Rochford what she wants. But as soon as she arrives, send her to me.

‘What do you hear from Beth Worcester?’ she says, settling herself to conversation as if the last weeks had never been. There is a gleam in her eye. ‘Beth must be in her seventh month now. I wonder if the earl has decided whose child it is?’

‘The king wants to know about Meg Douglas,’ he says.

‘No, he doesn’t. Why would he want to know his niece is ruined? What he wants is to show that all her friends have been questioned, so he can claim he has pursued every road to the truth. One must pity him. He will think he is held of little account these days – his friends cuckolding him, his daughter defying him, his niece contracting herself in marriage. And you yourself, using him so roughly.’

‘How, roughly?’

‘“Set me free,” Henry said. And so you did. He meant, free like a prince – not free like a beggar. You knocked down his palace of dreams and left him stark in the ruins. You showed him his wife was false, that his friendships were feigned. Of course, the treachery of a wife, it is only what you men expect; it is the sin of Eve, you say, betrayal is her nature. But the treachery of Norris – of Weston, whom he nursed in his bosom –’

‘I gave the king what he asked for.’ He thinks, she agrees with Chapuys: she believes Henry will never forgive me for it.

‘But did he know how he would be laughed at?’ Lady Rochford asks. ‘His clothes, his verses, his manhood? He must live with his shame now, and you must live with him. You will have to build him up again, as you can. You and the Seymours.’

‘Build him up? He is King of England.’

‘But is he a man?’ She laughs. ‘I suppose he can do the deed with pasty Jane. She will not expect too much of him. I do not envy her, these nights. Anne said it was like being slobbered over by a mastiff pup.’

He closes his eyes.

‘I hear the coronation is postponed,’ she says.

‘Get the hot weather over. Michaelmas, perhaps.’

He thinks, I hope for notice: time to paint out the dark-eyed goddesses I ordered for Anne, and replace them with Englishwomen dancing in a bower, with rounded bellies and rosy uplifted arms. Lady Rochford says, ‘I think he will not crown Jane till she can satisfy him she has an heir inside her.’

‘Satisfy him? You think she might lie about it?’

‘It has been known.’

We’ll let that pass, he thinks; she wants to draw him where he will not go, into the thickets of the past.

‘Seymour will know how to play her hand,’ she says. ‘Because Seymour has watched and waited. And God knows she has no conscience. I have been in the country and had to endure the prating of my neighbours – “Our lord king will be happy now, England is happy, this is a blessed marriage.” But how can it be blessed? A wedding dress made from a shroud?’

‘Who sewed it, my lady?’

‘Well, there is a question. You, or me, or Master Wyatt – who took the greater share in the work? I think it was you. We pricked out our little pattern, but you cut the cloth.’

‘In May, I counselled you, think before you speak. I warned you, if you give evidence against your husband, you will be shunned. You will be held in odium. You will be alone.’

‘How little you know of our lives,’ she says. ‘The lives of women, I mean. I have been alone for years.’

‘You must forget those days. No one speaks of Anne Boleyn. No one thinks of her. You must be jocund and pleasant and adapt yourself to the new queen, or you will be sent away again, and I shall not speak for you.’

‘Jane Seymour will not send me away. I know what she is. I know a thing about her.’

Inside his chest, a horrible slither and flip of the heart: Chapuys had asked, how could she be at your court so long, and still a virgin? He thinks, some wretch has dishonoured her. A wash of rage, like a current in the sea, almost knocks him off his feet.

Jane Rochford smirks. ‘It is not what you think. No one wanted Jane in their bed, she was too cold a fish. It is another thing, that I know – I know her method. I witnessed everything that she worked against Anne, maid against mistress. You will remember a day when Anne took fright because she found a paper in her bed? A drawing of a man crowned, and beside him a woman without a head?’

Dr Cranmer was there, and had reached across him to snatch it from Anne’s hand and tear it up. But Anne pulled away and read aloud: Anne Sans Tête. Anne had said, it is Katherine’s people, they did this, they watch me. Cremuel, she had clutched his arm, I am not safe. How can they come at me, in my own chamber?

He says, ‘Jane did not do it, she does not speak the French tongue.’

‘Everybody speaks that much.’ She laughs at him. ‘Do you know, I believe all these years you have been thinking it was me?’

‘It would have been a natural thought. There was no love lost between you and Anne.’

She says, ‘I have suffered since I was a girl from these people – the Howards, the Boleyns. George Boleyn talked to me as if I were a girl who carries coals for a living, or scrubs shirts. My family was as good as his. Why should Anne Boleyn be uplifted, and not me?’

She is like a starved child, he thinks. Offer her a morsel of attention and she feeds till she is sickened. He had seen Anne Boleyn in fear that day, but he had also heard her scorn. Let them do their worst. I will be queen, though hereafter I burn.

‘At least that was spared,’ he says. ‘Burning.’

Jane raises an eyebrow. ‘In this world, perhaps. I am sure the devil knows his business.’

He picks up his papers: though they have not completed their own business, indeed they have not begun it.

‘So, I am dismissed?’ Lady Rochford stands. ‘I thank you for my return to court. With what I have from my settlement from the Boleyns, and with my allowance for waiting on Jane, I shall be able to keep myself as a gentlewoman, if I am careful. And I dare say you will help me out if I am not.’

‘My obligations are not unlimited.’

‘At least you do not say, “My coffers are not bottomless.” Now that would make me laugh.’ She turns at the door. ‘About Meg Douglas,’ she says. ‘You will be asking yourself, could I have mistaken the meaning of what I saw last spring – the coming and going by night, the hasty flitting, those swift glances, those burning sighs …’

‘My lady, if you knew of this intrigue, why did you not come to me? It would have prevented much mischief. It would have helped me –’

‘How would it have helped you? You never supposed for one moment those men to be guilty of all you charged them with. You said, let us throw mud, and see what will stick. But for all that, you may be easy in your mind. Do not think a mistake has been made, nor an injustice done. You were not wrong about Anne Boleyn.’

‘I trust your word,’ he says, lying.

‘She was false to the core. False in her heart. Whatever our deeds, it is the heart that God sees. Is that not so, Master Secretary?’

He says, ‘You must learn to use my new title, madam.’

As he walks into Austin Friars he meets Richard Cromwell. ‘My doorkeeper,’ he says. ‘Never let a woman in here. I never want to see or speak to one.’

‘What, never?’ Gregory says. ‘Will you join a monastery? But then I hear they are full of women, and women of the worst sort too. What if the queen sends for you – what excuse shall we make?’

‘Tell her she can write me a letter. I’ll write her one back. But I will never read another verse in praise of love. I will read stanzas in praise of military victories. Metrical translations of the psalms. But women’s matters – no.’

Gregory says, ‘It is only the other week you were speaking warmly of the Lady Mary, and saying she ought to have presents.’

His nephew says, ‘Richard Riche is here. And Call-Me.’

‘And Rafe,’ Gregory says. ‘They look grave. We sent them into the garden.’

‘Rafe is here? Why did you not say so?’

He hurries out. It has rained within the hour, and the air is warm and grass-scented. Even the stocks that support his young trees seem to quiver with their own green life. The young men stand on a path of damp beaten earth, their sleeves brushing tangled roses, their hems stuck with briars. They are speaking in low voices, and as he approaches they break off and look at him, shifty, almost guilty.

Rafe says, ‘I cannot think how this has happened. It seems someone has taken letters of yours, or memoranda. It would not have occurred when I oversaw your desk.’

‘I assure you, Sadler,’ Richard Cromwell says, ‘there is nothing leaves this house that should not. Nor word, nor paper.’

‘Every household has traitors,’ Call-Me says.

Richard Riche says, ‘We would not for the world any baseless rumour traduce your reputation. Or set up a misunderstanding between you and our royal master.’

Mr Wriothesley says, ‘Your friends have often begged you to remarry.’

‘For God’s sake!’ he says. ‘What has happened?’

‘Chapuys seems to have some information, or has drawn some inference. He says that the king has promised the Lady Mary in marriage. To you.’

He is silent. ‘By the bones,’ he says. ‘I gave that lady a jewel to wear. Or at least, I attempted it.’

‘The rumour is everywhere by now,’ Call-Me says. ‘It swam to Flanders, rolled through France, scaled the mountains and flew back to us from Portugal.’

‘And does the king know?’

‘If he does not, he is the strange exception,’ Riche says.

Wriothesley says, ‘Sundry letters between you and his daughter were warm in tone. Someone has stolen them.’

‘Not necessarily,’ he says. Freely he had shown the ambassador letters from Mary; she in turn had shown the ambassador letters from him. ‘We cannot say they were stolen. We may say that they have been misread, on purpose to make a ruffle in the world.’

‘Your friends warned you,’ Call-Me says. ‘We warned you in the garden at Sadler’s house. You gave her mother a promise, you said. Now it comes home to you.’

He sees Henry’s face, as it broods over the gift in the palm of his hand. I’ll give it her, he said, you find her something else. Has the king saved him from himself? He says, ‘The king has not, he could not make any such proposition, as to marry his daughter to his councillor. And if he did, then I would refuse. He cannot believe I would seek such a match.’

‘Not for now,’ Gregory looks shocked. ‘But if he chose to believe it …’

Riche says, ‘It is a potent weapon, sir, for your enemies to turn against you. For many believe that the husband of the Lady Mary, whoever he be, will be king one day. And any man who offers himself to wed her, stands in treasonable light.’

‘Yes,’ Richard Cromwell says. ‘You need not go on spelling it out and spelling it out, Riche. This is my uncle’s reward for his goodness. He saved her, and now they say he did it to serve himself.’

He thinks, when fire breaks out you run to the rescue with a bucket. But it’s not the smoke and flames that kill you, it’s the bricks and timbers that fly out when the chimney blows up.

Gregory says, ‘Here is what to do, sir. Nothing will counter the rumour unless you can say, “I am married already.” Go out into the street and offer yourself to the first woman you see.’

‘I concur,’ his nephew says. ‘Old or young. Whatever her condition or degree.’

‘If she is already wed?’

‘Leave that to us,’ Richard says. ‘I am sure we can see off a husband. What do you think, Riche?’

The ghost of a smile: ‘We will dispose of him. Most of us do wrong, if we know it or not. Enquire into any man’s conduct, and I am sure some charge will lie.’

‘Or we can just knife the fellow and toss him on a dungheap,’ Richard says. ‘It’s what they think we do, anyway.’

‘I’ll knife the ambassador,’ he says, ‘when I see him.’

He finds Chapuys in his garden, sitting beneath a tree, a book on his knees. He proffers it: A Dialogue between Law and Conscience.

He takes the book and turns it over in his hands. John Rastell’s printing. ‘I can lend you the second part. But it’s in English.’

‘It continues?’ The ambassador is surprised. ‘I thought all was said. Matters of conscience do not fall outside the law. Therefore, what need of special laws made by churchmen?’ He takes the book back. ‘Soon, some Englishman will ask, what need of churchmen? Why not every man his own minister? The Germans are saying it already.’

He says, ‘I believe I am to be married.’

At least Chapuys has the grace not to lie. He does not deny knowledge of the rumour; he simply waves a hand and denies he is its source. ‘My dear Thomas, do you believe I would say such a thing of you? It would lead to your murder by the noble lords of England, and then I should have to deal with the Duke of Norferk as chief minister. And – I swear by the Mass – the mere thought of it and I am withered by ennui.’

‘I think you are trying to ruin me,’ he says.

‘Please,’ the ambassador signals to his people, ‘a glass of this excellent Rhenish?’

‘Put it on a sponge,’ he says. ‘I’ll have it when I’m nailed above London.’

‘You blaspheme,’ Chapuys says pleasantly. He hands a goblet. ‘I have only reported what I have heard from honourable and good men – that the king means to bestow his daughter on an Englishman, and has chosen you. But I have said to the Emperor, I believe Cromwell will decline the honour. He admits he is a blacksmith’s son, and is not lost to all sense.’

‘I could hardly deny my father.’ He thinks of Walter plunging his head in a water butt at the end of the day: coming up spitting, and spluttering for air. Why did he do it? He was no less filthy afterwards.

‘Of course, if the king did make the offer, face to face,’ Chapuys says, ‘how could you refuse him?’

‘He has not. He will not. He could not. He would rather see Mary dead. His pride would not allow such a match.’

‘Ah yes,’ the ambassador says, ‘his pride. I know from my own observation that the Lady Mary blushes when your name is mentioned.’

‘She blushes with rage,’ he says. ‘She is thinking how she will kill me when she has the power. Crucifixion would be a mercy.’ He downs the Rhenish. ‘She will hate me worse now. By the way, I like your cap badge. That is ingenious work.’

He could swear Chapuys pales. His hand goes to it: a marigold, a petal tipped with a pearl. But he is not a seasoned diplomat for nothing. He removes his cap, and begins to unpin the jewel. ‘Mon cher, it’s yours.’

He almost laughs. ‘You are gracious.’ The traitorous emblem rolls into his palm. He puts it in his pocket. ‘I shall fix it on later,’ he says. ‘Before a mirror.’

At home Rafe is waiting for him. ‘It is a sorry tale against Chapuys. After our amity in my garden.’

‘Oh, Chapuys is not our friend.’ He thinks, should I show him the cap badge? But does not.

‘And now?’ Rafe says.

‘Now let us visit the French ambassador and see what he knows.’

‘Monseigneur is from home,’ says the usher. Then, as if he might not understand, he says in English, ‘He is out.’

‘Really?’ He removes his hat. ‘Not just playing at being out? He didn’t spy me from the window? If I were to lift the lid of that chest, I would not find him crouching there with his knees under his chin?’

The ambassador in residence is Antoine de Castelnau, Bishop of Tarbes; and at the thought of a bishop crammed into this ridiculous posture, the usher cannot help but smile. Or perhaps it is because Cremuel rewards well, that he is so affable? ‘But milord, another friend of yours is within. Come …’

Jean de Dinteville is sitting by a good fire. Outside the birds hang listless on the bough, and lawns are baking to straw. ‘You!’ he says.

‘Alas, Thomas: your manners. “Welcome back, ambassador,” is the usual greeting.’

‘We shall have the pleasure of a long visit?’

‘Not if I can help it.’

‘But what brings you?’ You are on the scent of disaster, he thinks. Nothing else would fetch you. ‘Have you heard of my forthcoming nuptials?’

The ambassador does not smile. ‘My king said, get over there, Jeannot, bring Cremuel our felicitations in person. It will mean all the more, he said, coming from an old friend.’

He snorts. ‘He wants me dead, not wed.’

‘He lives in hope.’

‘If these ludicrous rumours take hold in France, I trust our own ambassador to pour scorn on them.’

‘Well, certainly, Bishop Gardineur does not see you as a fit spouse for a princess. He sees you more as – how does he put it? – fit to shoe horses.’ Dinteville turns his sad dark eyes on him. ‘You seem disconcerted, Thomas? You were not prepared for treachery? What do you expect, of Chapuys?’

He, Cromwell, edges away from the hearth. ‘Are you really cold? You can’t be cold,’ he says. ‘I don’t know what I expected. Not this.’

The ambassador stirs crossly inside his furs. ‘You think the Emperor and his people will be grateful to you, because you kept a promise to Catalina. I assure you, Cremuel, they think it is some trick you worked, at the bedside of a dying queen. They hold you a man of no honour nor compunction. But then, they think the same of Henry, so they would not be surprised at anything he did. Nor are we surprised.’

‘I don’t know what else I can do,’ he says. ‘I dealt fairly with the girl. Henry would have killed her. I saved him from a great crime.’

‘I don’t doubt. And now you must save him from another. I mean the Queen of Scotland’s daughter. What will you do there? If they say you preserved Mary for your own usage, they will say the same again. I have seen the Scottish princess. She is a sweeter morsel than the king’s daughter, is she not?’

He sees himself, coughing, labouring through the smoke. I’ve got you, girl! Carrying the maiden from the inferno. Bang! The house has gone up. He sprawls beneath the debris.

‘You know,’ he says, ‘if you walked about, ever? Get some air? Stir your blood? When Parliament rises, come out to the country with me.’

‘I assure you,’ the Frenchman says, ‘diplomacy excites me enough.’ He waves his hand at a blowfly that has taken his furs for some carcass; in the heat of midsummer a smell of must creeps through the room. ‘Take heart. I think my master King François may make you offers. I have told him, you should have regard to Cremuel and put greater sums in his pocket. My king understands that you do nothing except for money. And he sees that although you may be a heretic, you keep Henry from war. If it were not for you, he might be still indulging his belief that he is ruler of France.’

‘What does your king want?’

‘Calais.’

‘Never.’

‘Give it on your terms, or one day soon we will take it on ours. As you will concede, Henry has enough to do, to keep his own little kingdom. His foot should shrink from French soil. If he keeps within his own walls, perhaps we will not molest him. But then again, perhaps we will.’

At the envoy’s door, Christophe is entertaining a crowd of his compatriots. He breaks away from them, shouting, waving a fist in farewell. ‘I have been telling them,’ he says cheerfully, ‘that you have the vigour of a bull, and very fit to get offspring on the Lady Mary. But they say, that is why the king chooses Cremuel – on purpose to dishonour the granddaughter of Spain. They say that if you have children, Henry will make them scrub his floors. They will scour out privies for a living and haul shit in carts by the light of the moon.’

18 July, Parliament rises. Tom Truth is attainted. All he has – not much – is forfeit to the king, and he is entitled to nothing but a traitor’s death. Each dawn he will wake listening for footsteps. First comes Kingston or his deputy, always before nine. After him the priests.

‘Is his date to be deferred?’ he asks the king.

Henry says, ‘Yes. He can wait.’

‘And Lady Margaret? You know, sir, she was much misled. An innocent maid, sick at heart, and hopeful of your Majesty’s forgiveness.’

‘I shall allow her – I shall allow them both – an interval to think on their follies and crimes, before they receive their deserts.’

As the king and queen begin their progress to Dover, French ships are seen haunting the coast. In London, after their months of argument, the bishops make a statement of faith, which comprises ten articles. Rumour comes from Basle that Erasmus is dead. Hans, who has people there, says it is true.

In one of his last acts before departing Whitehall, the king has confirmed and augmented his state as Vicegerent of the church, and knighted him, so he is Sir Thomas as well as Lord Cromwell. If the king believes he has tried to entice, lure or seduce his daughter Mary, he gives no sign: amiably, he lays plans to see him, when business should spare him from the capital. Richmond is still confined to the sickroom, but the king says, if we linger the whole court may fall ill. ‘Be sure and send me Gregory,’ he says, waving a farewell.

His son is in demand. From Somerset to Kent, from the midlands to the northern fells, castles and manors compete to entertain him: a pleasant youth of competent good looks, never over-familiar but at ease with great men, discreet with servants and gentle with the poorer sort; able to play upon the virginals and lute, to sing his part, converse in French, and to take his hand at any game of skill or chance, indoors or out. On the hunting field he is tireless and without fear. He practises daily in the butts, giving example thereby – only modesty prevents his being as sharp as his father with the longbow. He, Lord Cromwell, thanks God daily for his accurate view of the middle distance. For close work now he needs spectacles. They are clumsy things, but Stephen Vaughan sends him good lenses from Antwerp. Sometimes his clerks read out letters to him. They mean to save him strain. He says, ‘Every word, mind. Not the gist of it. Not your version. Every word.’ If they cough or hesitate he makes them start again.

At Austin Friars, he asks Mathew to bring him The Book Called Henry. He hopes, though he lacks time, to record everything he has learned since Anne Boleyn was taken to the Tower. He means to set down the sum of advice he gives to the king’s councillors, especially those recently sworn. Their part is to animate and quicken virtue in their prince. If Henry can think himself good, he will do good. But if you cast a shadow on his soul, comparing him to princes who are morally perfect and lucky as well, do not be surprised if he furnishes you with reason for complaint.

Sometimes he reads a little in the book, to restore his faith in himself. He has hopes for the volume. It need not be long, but it must be very wise.

The day after the king’s departure he is at the Rolls House on Chancery Lane. Richard Cromwell comes in and lays papers before him. ‘Verses come up from Kent.’

He holds the papers to his face, imagining they smell of apples. It is Wyatt’s hand but as he reads he asks, ‘Is this his verse?’

‘It came from his desk, sir.’

‘So we are spying on Wyatt, are we?’ He is amused.

What he sees written are the names of dead men. Rochford. Norris. Weston. In mourning wise since daily I increase … ‘He increases,’ he says. ‘Why does he?’ He reads. Brereton, farewell. ‘Brereton, good riddance,’ he says.

He slaps the paper flat on the desk and runs his finger down the page. ‘Mark is not forgot.’ He pictures the boy’s whey-face. A time thou had’st, above thy poor degree … Addled, desperate, banging on a door in the middle of the night; shut in the dark he believed a phantom had caressed him, with feathers for fingers and holes for eyes.

He thinks, these lines lack form and force. Some of them are more Tom Truth than Tom Wyatt. And yet they present to him those corpses, promiscuous, heaped upon a cart: their pale English limbs intermingled, their heads in sodden bags. And thus farewell each one in heartiwise. The axe is home … He says to Richard, ‘You see that the writer does not plead their case. He says they are dead, he does not say they should be otherwise. He calls George Boleyn to account for pride … and here he says he scarce knows Brereton. So why mourn?’

‘Because grief spreads as a contagion, sir. It grows day by day.’

‘Up to a point.’ He knows about grief. He reads out loud. ‘Ah, Norris, Norris, my tears begin to run, to think what hap did thee so lead or guile, whereby thou hast both thee and thine undone …’ He breaks off. Is that ‘guile’? Or ‘guide’? ‘You note, he does not say anyone else has undone Norris. He does not say someone led him. He says chance led him, or circumstance.’

Richard says, ‘He believes Norris was guilty. It is plain enough.’

‘Well, well,’ he says. ‘And I thought I arranged his fate. But perhaps he did it all himself.’ He holds the paper up to the light. There are no scores or corrections. The watermark is a unicorn.

Richard says, ‘I do not know if these are Wyatt’s own verses, but whoever made them, he knows what passed. You see there is no mention of the lady.’

None is needed, he thinks. Anne is always in the room.

Richard says, ‘Perhaps Wyatt wrote it after all. With his left hand.’

Or his double heart. ‘It changes nothing,’ he says. The axe is home, your heads be in the street. It is only one man’s opinion. But it is one more blow to our faith in our judgement. We did thus, and thus: we might have done less, and let guilty tongues speak for themselves.

He watches as Richard draws the papers together. Pray for the souls of those be dead and gone. ‘I’m going to Mortlake,’ he says. ‘To my new house.’

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