Read A Column of Fire Online

Authors: Ken Follett

A Column of Fire (10 page)

Beside the doorpost at waist level was a loose half-brick. After making sure she was not observed, Sylvie pulled it out, reached into the hole, picked up a key, and replaced the brick. She turned the key in the door, entered, then closed and barred the door behind her.

There was a candle lamp in a holder on the wall. Sylvie had brought with her a tinderbox containing a flint, a steel in the shape of a capital letter D that fitted neatly around her slender fingers, some fragments of dry wood, and a twist of linen. When she struck the flint against the steel D, sparks flew into the box and ignited the wood fragments, which flamed rapidly. She then lit the end of the linen rag and used that to light the lamp.

The flickering light showed a wall of old barrels stacked floor to ceiling. Most were full of sand, and too heavy for one person to lift, but a few were empty. They all looked the same, but Sylvie knew the difference. She quickly moved one stack aside and stepped through the gap. Behind the barrels were wooden boxes of books.

The moment of greatest danger for the Palot family was when contraband books were being printed and bound in Giles’s workshop. If the place was raided at just the wrong time, they would all die. But as soon as the books were finished, they were stashed in boxes – always with a layer of innocent Catholic-approved literature on top for camouflage – and trundled in a cart to this warehouse, whereupon the print works reverted to producing legitimate books. Most of the time the premises by the cathedral contained nothing remotely illegal.

And only three people knew about this store: Giles, Isabelle and Sylvie. Sylvie had not been told until she was sixteen. Even the workers in the print factory did not know about it, although they were all Protestants: they were told that the finished books were delivered to a secret wholesaler.

Now Sylvie located a box marked ‘SA’ for
Sileni Alcibiadis
, probably the most important work of Erasmus. She took out a copy and wrapped it in a square of linen from a stack nearby, then tied up the bundle with string. She replaced the barrels so that the boxes of books were once again out of sight, and all that could be seen was a room apparently half full of barrels.

As she retraced her steps along the rue St Martin, she wondered whether her student would show up. He had come to the shop, as arranged, but he might yet get scared. Worse, he might arrive with some kind of official ready to arrest her. She was not afraid of death, of course, no true Christian was, but she was terrified of being tortured. She had visions of red-hot pincers entering her flesh, and had to thrust the images out of her mind by silent prayer.

The waterfront was quiet at night. The fishmongers’ stalls were shuttered and the gulls had gone to scavenge elsewhere. The river lapped softly on the foreshore.

Pierre was waiting for her, holding a lantern. His face lit from below looked sinisterly handsome.

He was alone.

She held up the book, but did not give it to him. ‘You must never tell anyone you have this,’ she said. ‘I could be executed for selling it to you.’

‘I understand,’ he said.

‘You, too, will be risking your life if you accept it from me.’

‘I know.’

‘If you’re sure, take it and give me back the

They swapped packages.

‘Goodbye,’ said Sylvie. ‘Remember what I said.’

‘I will,’ he promised.

Then he kissed her.


hurried through the draughty corridors of the palace of Tournelles with startling news for her best friend.

Her friend had to fulfil a promise she had never made. This had been expected for years, but, all the same, it was a shock. It was good news, and it was bad.

The medieval building on the eastern side of Paris was large and decrepit. Despite rich furnishings it was cold and uncomfortable. Prestigious but neglected, it was like its current occupier, Caterina de’ Medici, queen of France, the wife of a king who preferred his mistress.

Alison stepped into a side room and found who she was looking for.

Two adolescents sat on the floor by the window, playing cards, by the light of the fitful winter sunshine. Their clothes and jewellery showed them to be among the richest people in the world, but they were excitedly gambling for pennies and having a wonderful time.

The boy was fourteen but looked younger. He was stunted in growth and seemed frail. He was on the verge of puberty, and when he spoke in his cracked voice he stammered. This was Francis, the eldest son of King Henri II and Queen Caterina. He was the heir to the throne of France.

The girl was a beautiful redhead, extraordinarily tall at the age of fifteen, towering over most men. Her name was Mary Stuart, and she was the queen of the Scots.

When Mary was five and Alison eight they had moved from Scotland to France, two terrified little girls in a strange country where they could not understand a word anyone said. The sickly Francis had become their playmate, and the three children had formed the strong mutual attachment of those who live through adversity together.

Alison felt affectionately protective of Mary, who sometimes needed looking after on account of her tendency to be impulsive and foolhardy. Both girls were fond of Francis as of a helpless puppy or kitten. Francis worshipped Mary as a goddess.

Now the triangle of friendship was about to be rocked and perhaps destroyed.

Mary looked up and smiled, then saw Alison’s expression and became alarmed. ‘What is it?’ she said, speaking French with no remaining trace of a Scots accent. ‘What’s happened?’

Alison blurted it out. ‘You two have to get married on the Sunday after Easter!’

‘So soon!’ said Mary, then they both looked at Francis.

Mary had become engaged to Francis when she was five, just before she moved to France to live. The engagement was political, like all royal betrothals. Its purpose was to cement the alliance of France and Scotland against England.

But as the girls grew older they had come to doubt that the marriage would ever happen. Relations among the three kingdoms shifted constantly. Power brokers in London, Edinburgh and Paris talked frequently about alternative husbands for Mary Stuart. Nothing had seemed certain, until now.

Francis looked anguished. ‘I love you,’ he said to Mary. ‘I want to marry you – when I’m a man.’

Mary reached out to take his hand sympathetically, but he was overcome. He burst into tears and scrambled to his feet.

Alison said: ‘Francis—’

He shook his head helplessly, then ran from the room.

‘Oh, dear,’ said Mary. ‘Poor Francis.’

Alison closed the door. Now the two girls were alone and in private. Alison gave Mary her hand and pulled her up from the floor. Still holding hands, they sat together on a sofa covered in rich chestnut-brown velvet. They were quiet for a minute, then Alison said: ‘How do you feel?’

‘All my life they’ve been telling me I’m a queen,’ Mary said. ‘I never was, really. I became queen of the Scots when I was six days old, and people have never stopped treating me like a baby. But if I marry Francis, and he becomes king, then I will be queen of France – the real thing.’ Her eyes glittered with desire. ‘That’s what I want.’

‘But Francis . . .’

‘I know. He’s sweet, and I love him, but to lie down in a bed with him, and, you know . . .’

Alison nodded vigorously. ‘It hardly bears thinking about.’

‘Perhaps Francis and I could get married and just pretend.’

Alison shook her head. ‘Then the marriage might be annulled.’

‘And I would no longer be queen.’


Mary said: ‘Why now? What brought this on?’

Alison had been told by Queen Caterina, the most well-informed person in France. ‘Scarface suggested it to the king.’ The duke of Guise was Mary’s uncle, her mother’s brother. The family was riding high after his victory at Calais.

‘Why does Uncle Scarface care?’

‘Think how the prestige of the Guise family would be boosted if one of them became Queen of France.’

‘Scarface is a soldier.’

‘Yes. This was surely someone else’s idea.’

‘But Francis . . .’

‘It all comes back to little Francis, doesn’t it?’

little,’ Mary said. ‘And so ill. Is he even capable of doing what a man is supposed to do with his wife?’

‘I don’t know,’ said Alison. ‘But you’re going to find out on the Sunday after Easter.’


Margery and her parents were still deadlocked when January turned into February. Sir Reginald and Lady Jane were determined that Margery should marry Bart, and she had declared that she would never utter the vows.

Rollo was angry with her. She had a chance to take the family into the Catholic nobility, and instead she wanted to ally with the Protestant-leaning Willards. How could she contemplate such a betrayal – especially under a queen who favoured Catholics in every way?

The Fitzgeralds were the leading family in town – and they looked the part, Rollo thought proudly as they stood in the hall putting on their warmest clothes, while the great bell in the cathedral tower boomed its summons to Mass. Sir Reginald was tall and lean, and the freckles that marred his face also gave him a kind of distinction. He put on a heavy cloak of chestnut-brown cloth. Lady Jane, small and thin, had a sharp nose and darting eyes that did not miss much. She wore a coat lined with fur.

Margery, also short, was more rounded. She was in a furious sulk, and had not been allowed out of the house since the earl’s party; but she could not be held incommunicado for ever, and this morning the bishop of Kingsbridge would be at Mass, a powerful ally whom the family could not risk offending.

Margery had clearly decided not to look as miserable as she felt. She had put on a coat of Kingsbridge Scarlet and a matching hat. In the past year or so she had grown up to be the prettiest girl in town – even her brother could see that.

The fifth member of the family was Rollo’s great-aunt. She had been a nun at Kingsbridge Priory, and had come to live with the Fitzgeralds when the priory was shut down by King Henry VIII. She had turned her two rooms on the top floor of the house into a little nunnery, the bedroom a bare cell and the parlour a chapel; Rollo was awed by her devotion. Everyone still called her Sister Joan. She was now old and frail, and walked with two sticks, but she insisted on going to church when Bishop Julius was there. The maid Naomi would carry a chair to the cathedral for Sister Joan, for she could not remain standing a whole hour.

They stepped outside together. They lived at the crossroads at the top of the main street, opposite the Guild Hall, a commanding position, and for a moment Sir Reginald paused and looked down over the close-packed streets descending like stairs to the river. A light snow was falling on the thatched roofs and smoking chimneys. My town, his expression said.

As the mayor and his family made their stately procession down the slope of the main street their neighbours greeted them respectfully, the more prosperous ones wishing them good morning, the lower classes silently touching their hats.

In the daylight Rollo noticed that his mother’s coat was slightly moth-eaten, and he hoped no one would notice. Unfortunately, his father had no money for new clothes. Business was bad in Combe Harbour, where Sir Reginald was Receiver of Customs. The French had captured the port of Calais, the war dragged on, and Channel shipping was minimal.

As they approached the cathedral, they passed the other cause of the family’s financial crisis: the new house, to be called Priory Gate. It stood on the north side of the market square, on land that had been attached to the prior’s house in the days when there had been a priory. Construction had slowed almost to a stop. Most of the builders had gone elsewhere, to work for people who could pay them. A crude wooden fence had been erected to discourage curious people from entering the unfinished building.

Sir Reginald also owned the complex of priory buildings on the south side of the cathedral: the cloisters, the monks’ kitchen and dormitory, the nunnery and the stables. When Henry VIII had dissolved the monasteries, their property had been given or sold to local magnates, and Sir Reginald had got the priory. These mostly old buildings had been neglected for decades and were now falling down, with birds’ nests in the rafters and brambles growing in the cloisters. Reginald would probably sell them back to the chapter.

Between the two shabby lots the cathedral stood proud, unchanged for hundreds of years, just like the Catholic faith it represented. In the last forty years Protestants had tried to alter the Christian doctrines that had been taught here for so long: Rollo wondered how they had the arrogance. It was like trying to put modern windows in the church walls. The truth was for eternity, like the cathedral.

They went in through the great arches of the west front. It seemed even colder inside than out. As always, the sight of the long nave with its ordered lines of precisely repeated columns and arches filled Rollo with a reassuring sense of a systematic universe regulated by a rational deity. At the far end, winter daylight faintly lit the great rose window, its coloured glass showing how all things would end: God sitting in judgement on the last day, evildoers being tortured in Hell, the good entering Heaven, balance restored.

The Fitzgeralds moved down the aisle to the crossing as the prayers began. From a distance they watched the priests perform the service at the high altar. Around them were the other leading families of the town, including the Willards and the Cobleys, and of the county, notably the earl of Shiring and his son Bart, and Lord and Lady Brecknock.

The singing was mediocre. Hundreds of years of thrilling choral music at Kingsbridge Cathedral had come to an end when the priory closed and the choir was disbanded. Some of the former monks had started a new choir, but the spirit had gone. They were not able to recreate the fanatical discipline of a group whose entire lives were dedicated to praising God with beautiful music.

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