Read A Column of Fire Online

Authors: Ken Follett

A Column of Fire (12 page)

‘However, it probably won’t happen,’ Alice finished. ‘Reginald would not have lowered himself to beg a loan from me unless he had a really attractive deal lined up.’

Ned was already thinking about something else. The negotiation with Reginald had temporarily driven from his mind the only member of the Fitzgerald family in whom he was really interested.

He looked around the congregation but he could no longer see Margery. She had already left, and he knew where she had gone. He walked down the nave, trying not to appear hurried.

Preoccupied as he was, he marvelled as always at the music of the arches, the lower ones like bass notes repeated in a steady rhythm, the smaller ones in the gallery and the clerestory like higher harmonies in the same chord.

He pulled his cloak closer around him as he stepped outside and turned north, as if heading for the graveyard. The snow was falling more heavily now, settling on the roof of the monumental tomb of Prior Philip. It was so big that Ned and Margery had been able to stand on the far side of it and canoodle without fear of being observed. According to legend, Prior Philip had been forgiving towards those who gave in to sexual temptation, so Ned imagined the soul of the long-dead monk might not have been much troubled by two young people kissing over his grave.

But Margery had thought of a better meeting place than the tomb, and had told Ned her idea in a brief conversation during the service. Following her instructions, Ned now walked around the site of her father’s new palace. On the far side he checked that he was unobserved. There was a breach in the fence here, and he stepped through.

Sir Reginald’s new house had floors, walls, staircases and a roof, but no doors or windows. Ned stepped inside and ran up the grand stairs of Italian marble to a broad landing. Margery was waiting there. Her body was swathed in a big red coat, but her face was eager. He threw his arms around her and they kissed passionately. He closed his eyes and inhaled the scent of her, a warm fragrance that arose from the skin of her neck.

When they paused for breath, he said: ‘I’m worried. My mother has just loaned your father four hundred pounds.’

Margery shrugged. ‘They do that sort of thing all the time.’

‘Loans lead to quarrels. This could make things worse for us.’

‘How could things be worse? Kiss me again.’

Ned had kissed several girls, but none like this. Margery was the only one who came right out and said what she wanted. Women were supposed to be led by men, especially in physical relations, but Margery seemed not to know that.

‘I love the way you kiss,’ Ned said after a while. ‘Who taught you?’

‘No one taught me! What do you think I am? Anyway, it’s not as if there’s one right way. This isn’t bookkeeping.’

‘I suppose that’s true. Every girl is different. Ruth Cobley likes her breasts squeezed really hard, so she can still feel it later. Whereas Susan White—’

‘Stop it! I don’t want to know about your other girls.’

‘I’m teasing. There has never been one like you. That’s why I love you.’

‘I love you, too,’ she said, and they started kissing again. Ned opened his cloak and unbuttoned her coat so that they could press their bodies together. They hardly felt the cold.

Then Ned heard a familiar voice say: ‘Stop this right now!’

It was Rollo.

Ned reacted with a guilty start, then suppressed it: there was no reason he should not kiss a girl who loved him. He released Margery from his embrace and turned around with deliberate slowness. He was not afraid of Rollo. ‘Don’t try to give me orders, Rollo. We’re not at school now.’

Rollo ignored him and spoke to Margery, full of righteous indignation. ‘You’re coming home with me right now.’

Margery had lived a long time with her bullying older brother, and she was practised at resisting his will. ‘You go ahead,’ she said in a casual tone that sounded only a little forced. ‘I’ll be there in a minute.’

Rollo reddened. ‘I said now.’ He grabbed Margery’s arm.

Ned said: ‘Take your hands off her, Rollo – there’s no call for physical force.’

‘You shut your mouth. I’ll do as I please with my younger sister.’

Margery tried to pull her arm away, but Rollo tightened his grip. She said: ‘Stop it, that hurts!’

Ned said: ‘I’ve warned you, Rollo.’ He did not want violence, but he would not give in to bullying.

Rollo jerked Margery’s arm.

Ned grabbed Rollo by the coat, pulled him away from Margery, and gave him a shove, so that he staggered across the landing.

Then Ned saw Bart coming up the marble staircase.

Rollo recovered his balance. He raised a warning finger, stepped towards Ned, said: ‘Now you listen to me!’ and then kicked Ned.

The kick was aimed at the groin but Ned moved an inch and took the blow on his thigh. It hurt but he hardly noticed it, he was so angry. He went at Rollo with both fists, hitting Rollo’s head and chest three times, four, five. Rollo retreated then tried to hit back. He was taller and had longer arms, but Ned was angrier.

Ned vaguely heard Margery scream: ‘Stop it, stop it!’

Ned drove Rollo across the landing then, suddenly, he felt himself seized from behind. It was Bart, he realized. Ned’s arms were pressed to his sides as if by a rope: Bart was much bigger and stronger than either Ned or Rollo. Ned struggled furiously but could not break free, and suddenly he realized he was in for a hell of a beating.

As Bart held Ned, Rollo started to hit him. Ned tried to duck and dodge but he was pinned, and Rollo was able to punch his face and belly and kick him in the balls, painfully, again and again. Bart laughed with delight. Margery screamed and tried to restrain her brother, but without much effect: she was fierce enough, but too small to stop him.

After a minute Bart tired of the game and stopped laughing. He shoved Ned aside, and Ned fell on the floor. He tried to get up, but for a moment he could not. One eye was closed, but through the other he saw Rollo and Bart take Margery by either arm and march her away down the stairs.

Ned coughed and spat blood. A tooth came out with the blood and landed on the floor, he saw with his one good eye. Then he vomited.

He hurt all over. He tried again to get up, but it was too agonizing. He lay on his back on the cold marble, waiting for the pain to go away. ‘Shit,’ he said. ‘Shit.’

*

‘W
HERE HAVE YOU
been?’ Lady Jane asked Margery as soon as Rollo brought her into the house.

Margery yelled: ‘Rollo punched Ned while Bart held him still – what kind of animal does that?’

‘Calm down,’ said her mother.

‘Look at Rollo, rubbing his knuckles – he’s proud of himself!’

Rollo said: ‘I’m proud of doing the right thing.’

‘You couldn’t fight Ned on your own, though, could you?’ She pointed at Bart, who followed Rollo in. ‘You had to have his help.’

‘Never mind that,’ said Lady Jane. ‘There’s someone to see you.’

‘I can’t speak to anyone now,’ Margery said. She wanted nothing more than to be alone in her room.

‘Don’t be disobedient,’ said her mother. ‘Come with me.’

Margery’s power of resistance melted away. She had watched the man she loved being beaten up, and it was her fault for loving him. She felt she had lost the ability to do the right thing. She shrugged listlessly and followed her mother.

They went to Lady Jane’s parlour, from which she managed the house and directed the domestic servants. It was an austere room, with hard chairs and a writing table and a prie-dieu. On the table stood Jane’s collection of ivory carvings of saints.

The bishop of Kingsbridge was waiting there.

Bishop Julius was a thin old man, perhaps as much as sixty-five, but quick in his movements. His head was bald and Margery always thought his face looked like a skull. His pale blue eyes flashed with intelligence.

Margery was startled to see him. What could he possibly want with her?

Lady Jane said: ‘The bishop has something to say to you.’

‘Sit down, Margery,’ said Julius.

She did as she was told.

‘I’ve known you since you were born,’ he said. ‘You’ve been brought up a Christian and a good Catholic. Your parents can be proud of you.’

Margery said nothing. She hardly saw the bishop. In her mind she watched again while Rollo viciously punched Ned’s dear face.

‘You say your prayers, you go to Mass, you confess your sins once a year. God is pleased with you.’

It was true. Everything else in Margery’s life seemed wrong – her brother was hateful, her parents were cruel, and she was supposed to marry a beast – but at least she felt she was right with God. That was some consolation.

‘And yet,’ said the bishop, ‘suddenly you seem to have forgotten everything you were taught.’

Now he had her attention. ‘No, I haven’t,’ she said indignantly.

Her mother said: ‘Speak when the bishop asks you to, not otherwise, you impudent child.’

Julius smiled indulgently. ‘It’s all right, Lady Jane. I understand that Margery is upset.’

Margery stared at him. He was a living icon of Christ and the earthly shepherd of the Christian flock. His words came from God. What was he accusing her of?

He said: ‘You seem to have forgotten the fourth commandment.’

Suddenly Margery felt ashamed. She knew what he meant. She looked down at the floor.

‘Say the fourth commandment, Margery.’

She mumbled: ‘Honour thy father and mother.’

‘Say it louder and more clearly, please.’

She lifted her head but could not meet his eye. ‘Honour thy father and mother,’ she said.

Julius nodded. ‘In the last month you have dishonoured your father and mother, haven’t you?’

Margery nodded. It was true.

‘It’s your sacred duty to do as you’re told.’

‘I’m sorry,’ she whispered miserably.

‘It’s not enough to repent, though, is it, Margery? You know that.’

‘What must I do?’

‘You must cease to sin. You must obey.’

She looked up and met his eye at last. ‘Obey?’

‘This is what God wants.’

‘Is it, really?’

‘It is.’

He was the bishop. He knew what God wanted. And he had told her. She looked down again.

‘I want you to speak to your father, now,’ said Julius.

‘Must I?’

‘You know you must. And I think you know what you have to say. Do you?’

Margery was too choked up to speak, but she nodded.

The bishop made a sign to Lady Jane, who went to the door and opened it. Sir Reginald was waiting there, and he stepped in. He looked at Margery and said: ‘Well?’

‘I’m sorry, Father,’ she said.

He said: ‘So you should be.’

There was a pause. They were waiting for her.

At last she said: ‘I will marry Bart Shiring.’

‘Good girl,’ he said.

Margery stood up. ‘May I go?’

Lady Jane said: ‘Perhaps you should thank the bishop for steering you back into the path of God’s grace.’

Margery turned to Julius. ‘Thank you, bishop.’

‘Very well,’ said Lady Jane. ‘Now you may go.’

Margery left the room.

*

O
N
M
ONDAY MORNING
Ned looked out of the window and saw Margery, and his heart quickened.

He was standing in the parlour, and his tortoiseshell cat, Maddy, was rubbing her head against his ankle. He had named her Madcap when she was a kitten, but now she was an old lady who was pleased, in a restrained, dignified way, to see him home.

He watched Margery cross the square to the Grammar School. Three mornings a week she held an infants’ class, teaching them numbers and letters and the miracles of Jesus, getting them ready for real school. She had been absent from her duties for the whole of January, but now she was returning, Ned assumed. Rollo was with her, apparently as an escort.

Ned had been waiting for this.

He had had romances before. He had never committed the sin of fornication, although he had got close once or twice; he had certainly felt himself very fond of Susan White and Ruth Cobley at different times. However, as soon as he had fallen for Margery he had known this was different. He did not want merely to get Margery behind the tomb of Prior Philip and kiss and caress her. He wanted that, yes, but he also wanted to spend long leisurely hours with her, to talk to her about plays and paintings, Kingsbridge gossip and English politics; or just to lie next to her on a grassy bank by a stream in the sunshine.

He restrained the impulse to rush out of the house now and accost her in the marketplace. He would speak to her when the class ended at noon.

He spent the morning at the warehouse, making entries in ledgers. His older brother, Barney, hated this part of the work – Barney had always struggled with letters and had not learned to read until he was twelve – but Ned liked it: the bills and receipts, the quantities of tin and lead and iron ore, the voyages to Seville and Calais and Antwerp, the prices, and the profits. Sitting at a table with a quill pen and a bottle of ink and a fat book of lists, he could see an entire international business empire.

However, it was now an empire on the edge of collapse. Most of what the Willard family owned was in Calais, and had probably been confiscated by the king of France. The stocks of materials here in Kingsbridge were valuable, but difficult to sell while cross-Channel shipping was restricted by war. Several employees had been dismissed because there was nothing for them to do. Ned’s ledger work consisted of trying to add up what was left and see whether it was enough to pay outstanding debts.

His work was constantly interrupted by people asking him why he had a black eye. He told them the plain truth, just as he had told his mother: Bart and Rollo had beaten him up for kissing Margery. No one was shocked or even surprised: fist fights were not unusual among young men, especially at the end of the week, and it was commonplace to see bruises on Monday morning.

Grandma had been indignant. ‘That Rollo is a sly fox,’ she had said. ‘He was a spiteful little boy and now he’s a vindictive big man. You be careful of him.’ Alice had cried over Ned’s lost tooth.

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