Read A Column of Fire Online

Authors: Ken Follett

A Column of Fire (11 page)

The congregation was still for the dramatic moments, such as the elevation of the Host, and they listened politely to Bishop Julius’s sermon – on obedience – but for much of the time they talked among themselves.

Rollo was annoyed to see that Margery had slyly slipped away from the family and was talking animatedly to Ned Willard, the plume on her cap bobbing vigorously with emphasis. Ned, too, was dressed up, in his blue French coat, and he was clearly thrilled to be with her. Rollo wanted to kick him for insolence.

To compensate, Rollo went and spoke to Bart Shiring, and told him it would come right in the end. They spoke about the war. The loss of Calais had damaged more than just trade. Queen Mary and her foreign husband were increasingly unpopular. Rollo still did not think England would ever have another Protestant monarch, but Mary Tudor was doing no good to the Catholic cause.

As the service came to an end, Rollo was approached by Philbert Cobley’s plump son, Dan. The puritanical Cobleys were here unwillingly, Rollo felt sure; he guessed they hated the statues and the paintings, and would have liked to hold their noses against the whiff of incense. Rollo was driven mad by the idea that people – ignorant, uneducated, stupid ordinary people – had the right to make up their own minds about religion. If such a naive idea ever gained currency, civilization would collapse. People had to be told what to do.

With Dan was a wiry, weather-beaten man called Jonas Bacon, one of the many sea captains employed by Kingsbridge merchants.

Dan said to Rollo: ‘We have a cargo that we want to sell. Might you be interested?’

Ship owners such as the Cobleys often sold their cargoes in advance, sometimes offering quarters or eighths to multiple investors. It was a way of raising the money to finance the voyage and, at the same time, spreading the risk. Stakeholders could sometimes get back ten times the cost of their share – or they could lose it all. In more prosperous days Sir Reginald had made huge profits this way.

‘We might be interested,’ Rollo said. He was being insincere. His father had no cash to invest in a cargo, but Rollo wanted to know about it anyway.

St Margaret
is on her way back from the Baltic Sea, her hold crammed with furs worth more than five hundred pounds landed,’ Dan said. ‘I can show you the manifest.’

Rollo frowned. ‘How can you know this if she’s still at sea?’

Captain Bacon answered the question in a voice hoarse from years of shouting into the wind. ‘I overtook her off the Netherlands coast. My ship, the
, is faster. I hove to and took the details. The
St Margaret
was about to go into harbour for minor repairs. But she will be in Combe in two weeks.’

Captain Bacon had a bad reputation. Many captains did. There was no one to witness what sailors did at sea, and people said they were thieves and murderers. But his story was credible. Rollo nodded and turned back to Dan. ‘So why would you sell the cargo now?’

A sly look appeared on Dan’s round white face. ‘We need the money for another investment.’

He was not going to say what. That was natural: if he had come across a good business opportunity he would not give others the chance to get in first. All the same, Rollo was suspicious. ‘Is there something wrong with your cargo?’

‘No. And to prove it we’re prepared to guarantee the value of the furs at five hundred pounds. But we’ll sell the cargo to you for four hundred.’

It was a large sum. A prosperous farmer owning his land might make fifty pounds a year; a successful Kingsbridge merchant would be proud of an annual income of two hundred. Four hundred was a huge investment – but a guaranteed profit of a hundred pounds in only two weeks was a rare opportunity.

And it would pay off all the Fitzgerald family’s debts.

Unfortunately, they did not have four hundred pounds. They did not have four pounds.

Nevertheless, Rollo said: ‘I’ll put it to my father.’ He was sure they could not make this deal, but Sir Reginald might be offended if the son claimed to speak authoritatively for the family.

‘Don’t delay,’ Dan said. ‘I came to you first out of respect, because Sir Reginald is the mayor, but there are other people we can go to. And we need the money tomorrow.’ He and the captain moved away.

Rollo looked around the nave, spotted his father leaning against a fluted column, and went over. ‘I’ve been talking to Dan Cobley.’

‘Oh, yes?’ Sir Reginald did not like the Cobleys. Few people did. They seemed to think they were holier than ordinary people, and their walkout at the play had annoyed everybody. ‘What did he want?’

‘To sell a cargo.’ Rollo gave his father the details.

When he had done, Reginald said: ‘And they’re prepared to guarantee the value of the furs?’

‘Five hundred pounds – for an investment of four hundred. I know we don’t have the money, but I thought you’d like to know about it.’

‘You’re right, we don’t have the money.’ Reginald looked thoughtful. ‘But I might be able to get it.’

Rollo wondered how. But his father could be resourceful. He was not the kind of merchant to build up a business gradually, but he was an alert opportunist, keen to grab an unforeseen bargain.

Was it possible he could solve all the family’s worries at a stroke? Rollo hardly dared to hope.

To Rollo’s surprise Reginald went to speak to the Willards. Alice was a leading merchant, so the mayor often had matters to discuss with her; but the two did not like one another, and relations had not been improved by the Fitzgeralds’ rejection of young Ned as a potential son-in-law. Rollo followed his father, intrigued.

Reginald spoke quietly. ‘A word with you, Mrs Willard, if I may.’

Alice was a short, stout woman with impeccable good manners. ‘Of course,’ she said politely.

‘I need to borrow four hundred pounds for a short period.’

Alice looked startled. ‘You may need to go to London,’ she said after a pause. ‘Or Antwerp.’ The Netherlands city of Antwerp was the financial capital of Europe. ‘We have a cousin in Antwerp,’ she added. ‘But I don’t know that even he would want to lend such a large sum.’

‘I need it today,’ Sir Reginald said.

Alice raised her eyebrows.

Rollo felt a pang of shame. It was humiliating to beg a loan from the family they had scorned so recently.

But Reginald ploughed on regardless. ‘You’re the only merchant in Kingsbridge who has that kind of money instantly available, Alice.’

Alice said: ‘May I ask what you want the money for?’

‘I have the chance to buy a rich cargo.’

Reginald would not say from whom, Rollo guessed, for fear that Alice might try to buy the cargo herself.

Reginald added: ‘The ship will be in Combe Harbour in two weeks.’

At this point Ned Willard butted into the conversation. Naturally, Rollo thought bitterly, he would enjoy the sight of the Fitzgeralds asking for help from the Willards. But Ned’s contribution was businesslike. ‘So why would the owner sell it at this point?’ he said sceptically. ‘He only has to wait two weeks to get the full value of the landed cargo.’

Reginald looked irritated at being questioned by a mere boy, but curbed his displeasure and replied: ‘The vendor needs cash immediately for another investment.’

Alice said: ‘I can’t take the risk of losing such a large amount – you’ll understand that.’

‘There’s no risk,’ said Reginald. ‘You’ll be repaid in little more than two weeks.’

That was absurd, Rollo knew. There was always risk.

Reginald lowered his voice. ‘We’re neighbours, Alice. We help each other. I ease the way for your cargoes at Combe Harbour, you know that. And you help me. It’s how Kingsbridge works.’

Alice looked taken aback, and after a moment Rollo realized why. His father’s emollient words about helping neighbours actually constituted a backhand threat. If Alice did not co-operate, it was implied, then Reginald might make trouble for her in the harbour.

There was an extended silence while Alice considered this. Rollo could guess what she was thinking. She did not want to make the loan, but she could not afford to antagonize someone as powerful as Reginald.

At last Alice said: ‘I would require security.’

Rollo’s hopes sank. A man who has nothing cannot offer security. This was just another way of saying ‘No’.

Reginald said: ‘I’ll pledge my post as Receiver of Customs.’

Alice shook her head. ‘You can’t dispose of it without royal permission – and you don’t have time for that.’

Rollo knew that Alice was right. Reginald was in danger of revealing his desperation.

Reginald said: ‘Then how about the priory?’

Alice shook her head. ‘I don’t want your half-built house.’

‘Then the southern part, the cloisters and the monks’ quarters and the nunnery.’

Rollo was sure Alice would not accept that as security. The buildings of the old priory had been disused for more than twenty years, and were now beyond repair.

Yet, to his surprise, Alice suddenly looked interested. She said: ‘Perhaps . . .’

Rollo spoke up. ‘But, Father, you know that Bishop Julius wants the chapter to buy back the priory – and you’ve more or less agreed to sell it.’

The pious Queen Mary had tried to return all the property seized from the Church by her rapacious father, Henry VIII, but Members of Parliament would not pass the legislation – too many of them had benefited – so the Church was trying to buy it back cheaply; and Rollo thought it was the duty of good Catholics to help that process.

‘That’s all right,’ said Reginald. ‘I’m not going to default on the loan, so the security will not be seized. The bishop will have what he wants.’

‘Good,’ said Alice.

Then there was a pause. Alice was clearly waiting for something, but would not say what. At last Reginald guessed, and said: ‘I would pay you a good rate of interest.’

‘I would want a high rate,’ said Alice. ‘Except that to charge interest on loans is usury, which is a crime as well as a sin.’

She was right, but this was a quibble. Laws against usury were circumvented daily in every commercial town in Europe. Alice’s prissy objection was only for the sake of appearances.

‘Well, now, I’m sure we can find a way around that,’ said Reginald in the jocular tone of one who proposes an innocent deception.

Alice said warily: ‘What did you have in mind?’

‘Suppose I give you use of the priory during the term of the loan, then rent it back from you?’

‘I’d want eight pounds a month.’

Ned looked anxious. Evidently he wanted his mother to walk away from this deal. And Rollo could see why: Alice was going to risk four hundred pounds to earn just eight pounds.

Reginald pretended to be outraged. ‘Why, that’s twenty-four per cent a year – more, compounded!’

‘Then let’s drop the whole idea.’

Rollo began to feel hopeful. Why was Alice arguing about the rate of interest? It must mean she was going to make the loan. Rollo saw that Ned was looking mildly panicked, and guessed he was thinking the same, but regarding the prospect with dismay.

Reginald thought for a long moment. At last he said: ‘Very well. So be it.’ He held out his hand, and Alice shook it.

Rollo was awestruck by his father’s cleverness. For a man who was virtually penniless to make an investment of four hundred pounds was a triumph of audacity. And the cargo of the
St Margaret
would revive the family finances. Thank heaven for Philbert Cobley’s sudden urgent need for money.

‘I’ll draw up the papers this afternoon,’ said Alice Willard, and she turned away.

At the same moment, Lady Jane came up. ‘It’s time to go home,’ she said. ‘Dinner will be ready.’

Rollo looked around for his sister.

Margery was nowhere to be seen.


the Fitzgeralds were out of earshot, Ned said to his mother: ‘Why did you agree to lend so much money to Sir Reginald?’

‘Because he would have made trouble for us if I’d refused.’

‘But he may default! We could lose everything.’

‘No, we’d have the priory.’

‘A collection of tumbledown buildings.’

‘I don’t want the buildings.’

‘Then . . .’ Ned frowned.

‘Think,’ said his mother.

If not the buildings, what did Alice want? ‘The land?’

‘Keep thinking.’

‘It’s in the heart of the city.’

‘Exactly. It’s the most valuable site in Kingsbridge, and worth a lot more than four hundred pounds to someone who knows how to make the most of it.’

‘I see,’ said Ned. ‘But what would you do with it – build a house, like Reginald?’

Alice looked scornful. ‘I don’t need a palace. I would build an indoor market that would be open every day of the week, regardless of the weather. I’d rent space to stallholders – pastry cooks, cheesewrights, glovers, shoemakers. There, right next to the cathedral, it would make money for a thousand years.’

The project was an idea of genius, Ned judged. That was why his mother had thought of it, and he had not.

All the same, a trace of his worry remained. He did not trust the Fitzgeralds.

Another thought occurred to him. ‘Is this a contingency plan in case we’ve lost everything in Calais?’

Alice had made strenuous efforts to get news from Calais, but had learned no more since the French had taken the city. Perhaps they had simply confiscated all English property, including the richly stocked Willard warehouse; perhaps Uncle Dick and his family were on their way to Kingsbridge empty-handed. But the city had prospered mainly because English merchants brought trade, and it was just possible that the French king realized it was smarter to let the foreigners keep what was theirs and stay in business.

Unfortunately, no news was bad news: the fact that no Englishmen had yet escaped from Calais and come home with information, despite the passage of a month, suggested that few were left alive.

‘The indoor market is worth doing in any circumstances,’ Alice answered. ‘But yes, I’m thinking we may well need a whole new business if the news from Calais is as bad as we fear.’

Ned nodded. His mother was always thinking ahead.

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