Read A Column of Fire Online

Authors: Ken Follett

A Column of Fire (2 page)

The storm eased again, and he saw that the barge was passing through the western suburbs of Kingsbridge. On both banks were the workshops of industries that used a lot of water: dyeing, fulling of cloth, papermaking and meat slaughtering. Because these processes could be smelly, the west was the low-rent neighbourhood.

Ahead, Leper Island came into view. The name was old: there had been no lepers here for centuries. At the near end of the island was Caris’s Hospital, founded by the nun who had saved the city during the Black Death. As the barge drew closer Ned was able to see, beyond the hospital, the graceful twin curves of Merthin’s Bridge, connecting the island to the mainland north and south. The love story of Caris and Merthin was part of local legend, passed from one generation to the next around winter fireplaces.

The barge eased into a berth on the crowded waterfront. The city seemed not to have altered much in a year. Places such as Kingsbridge changed only slowly, Ned supposed: cathedrals and bridges and hospitals were built to last.

He had a satchel slung over his shoulder, and now the captain of the barge handed him his only other luggage: a small wooden trunk containing a few clothes, a pair of pistols and some books. He hefted the box, took his leave, and stepped onto the dock.

He turned towards the large stone-built waterside warehouse that was his family’s business headquarters, but when he had gone only a few steps, he heard a familiar Scots voice say: ‘Well, if it isn’t our Ned. Welcome home!’

The speaker was Janet Fife, his mother’s housekeeper. Ned smiled broadly, glad to see her.

‘I was just buying a fish for your mother’s dinner,’ she said. Janet was so thin she might have been made of sticks, but she loved to feed people. ‘You shall have some, too.’ She ran a fond eye over him. ‘You’ve changed,’ she said. ‘Your face seems thinner, but your shoulders are broader. Did your Aunt Blanche feed you properly?’

‘She did, but Uncle Dick set me to shovelling rocks.’

‘That’s no work for a scholar.’

‘I didn’t mind.’

Janet raised her voice. ‘Malcolm, Malcolm, look who’s here!’

Malcolm was Janet’s husband and the Willard family’s groom. He came limping across the dockside: he had been kicked by a horse years ago when he was young and inexperienced. He shook Ned’s hand warmly and said: ‘Old Acorn died.’

‘He was my brother’s favourite horse.’ Ned hid a smile: it was just like Malcolm to give news of the animals before the humans. ‘Is my mother well?’

‘The mistress is in fine fettle, thanks be to God,’ Malcolm said. ‘And so was your brother, last we heard – he’s not a great writer, and it takes a month or two for letters to get here from Spain. Let me help with your luggage, young Ned.’

Ned did not want to go home immediately. He had another plan. ‘Would you carry my box to the house?’ he said to Malcolm. On the spur of the moment he invented a cover story. ‘Tell them I’m going into the cathedral to give thanks for a safe journey, and I’ll come home right afterwards.’

‘Very good.’

Malcolm limped off and Ned followed more slowly, enjoying the familiar sight of buildings he had grown up with. The snow was still falling lightly. The roofs were all white, but the streets were busy with people and carts, and underfoot there was only slush. Ned passed the notorious White Horse tavern, scene of regular Saturday-night fights, and walked uphill on the main street to the cathedral square. He passed the bishop’s palace and paused for a nostalgic moment outside the Grammar School. Through its narrow, pointed windows he could see lamplit bookshelves. There he had learned to read and count, to know when to fight and when to run away, and to be flogged with a bundle of birch twigs without crying.

On the south side of the cathedral was the priory. Since King Henry VIII had dissolved the monasteries, Kingsbridge Priory had fallen into sad disrepair, with holed roofs, teetering walls and vegetation growing through windows. The buildings were now owned by the current mayor, Margery’s father, Sir Reginald Fitzgerald, but he had done nothing with them.

Happily the cathedral was well maintained, and stood as tall and strong as ever, the stone symbol of the living city. Ned stepped through the great west door into the nave. He would thank God for a safe journey and thereby turn the lie he had told Malcolm into a truth.

As always, the church was a place of business as well as worship: Friar Murdo had a tray of vials of earth from Palestine, guaranteed to be genuine; a man Ned did not recognize offered hot stones to warm your hands for a penny; and Puss Lovejoy, shivering in a red dress, was selling what she always sold.

Ned looked at the ribs of the vaulting, like the arms of a crowd of people all reaching up to heaven. Whenever he came into this place he thought of the men and women who had built it. Many of them were commemorated in
Timothy’s Book
, a history of the priory that was studied in the school: the masons Tom Builder and his stepson, Jack; Prior Philip; Merthin Fitzgerald, who, as well as the bridge, had put up the central tower; and all the quarrymen, mortar women, carpenters and glaziers, ordinary people who had done an extraordinary thing, risen above their humble circumstances and created something eternally beautiful.

Ned knelt before the altar for a minute. A safe journey was something to be thankful for. Even on the short crossing from France to England, ships could get into trouble and people could die.

But he did not linger. His next stop was Margery’s house.

On the north side of the cathedral square, opposite the bishop’s palace, was the Bell Inn, and, next to that, a new house was going up. It was on land that had belonged to the priory, so Ned guessed Margery’s father was building. It was going to be impressive, Ned saw, with bay windows and many chimneys: it would be the grandest house in Kingsbridge.

He continued up the main street to the crossroads. Margery’s current home stood on one corner, across the road from the Guild Hall. Although not as imposing as the new place promised to be, it was a big timber-framed building occupying an acre of the priciest land in town.

Ned paused on the doorstep. He had been looking forward to this moment for a year but, now that it had come, he found his heart full of apprehension.

He knocked.

The door was opened by an elderly maid, Naomi, who invited him into the great hall. Naomi had known Ned all his life, but she looked troubled, as if he were a dubious stranger; and, when he asked for Margery, Naomi said she would go and see.

Ned looked at the painting of Christ on the cross that hung over the fireplace. In Kingsbridge there were two kinds of picture: Bible scenes and formal portraits of noblemen. In wealthy French homes Ned had been surprised to see paintings of pagan gods such as Venus and Bacchus, shown in fantastic forests, wearing robes that always seemed to be falling off.

But here there was something unusual. On the wall opposite the crucifixion was a map of Kingsbridge. Ned had never seen such a thing, and he studied it with interest. It clearly showed the town divided into four by the main street, running north–south, and the high street running east–west. The cathedral and the former priory occupied the south-east quarter; the malodorous industrial neighbourhood the south-west. All the churches were marked and some of the houses too, including the Fitzgeralds’ and the Willards’. The river formed the eastern border of the town, then turned like a dog’s leg. It had once formed the southern border too, but the town had extended over the water, thanks to Merthin’s bridge, and there was now a big suburb on the far bank.

The two pictures represented Margery’s parents, Ned noted: her father, the politician, would have hung the map; and her mother, the devout Catholic, the crucifixion.

It was not Margery who came into the great hall but her brother, Rollo. He was taller than Ned, and good-looking, with black hair. Ned and Rollo had been at school together, but they had never been friends: Rollo was four years older. Rollo had been the cleverest boy in the school, and had been put in charge of the younger pupils; but Ned had refused to regard him as a master and had never accepted his authority. To make matters worse, it had soon become clear that Ned was going to be at least as clever as Rollo. There had been quarrels and fights until Rollo went away to study at Kingsbridge College, Oxford.

Ned tried to hide his dislike and suppress his irritation. He said politely: ‘I see there’s a building site next to the Bell. Is your father putting up a new house?’

‘Yes. This place is rather old-fashioned.’

‘Business must be good at Combe.’ Sir Reginald was Receiver of Customs at Combe Harbour. It was a lucrative post, granted to him by Mary Tudor when she became queen, as a reward for his support.

Rollo said: ‘So, you’re back from Calais. How was it?’

‘I learned a lot. My father built a pier and warehouse there, managed by my Uncle Dick.’ Edmund, Ned’s father had died ten years ago, and his mother had run the business ever since. ‘We ship English iron ore, tin and lead from Combe Harbour to Calais, and from there it’s sold all over Europe.’ The Calais operation was the foundation of the Willard family business.

‘How has the war affected it?’ England was at war with France, but Rollo’s concern was transparently fake. In truth he relished the danger to the Willard fortune.

Ned downplayed it. ‘Calais is well defended,’ he said, sounding more confident than he felt. ‘It’s surrounded by forts that have protected it ever since it became part of England two hundred years ago.’ He ran out of patience. ‘Is Margery at home?’

‘Do you have a reason to see her?’

It was a rude question, but Ned pretended not to notice. He opened his satchel. ‘I brought her a present from France,’ he said. He took out a length of shimmering lavender silk, carefully folded. ‘I think the colour will suit her.’

‘She won’t want to see you.’

Ned frowned. What was this? ‘I’m quite sure she will.’

‘I can’t imagine why.’

Ned chose his words carefully. ‘I admire your sister, Rollo, and I believe she is fond of me.’

‘You’re going to find that things have changed while you’ve been away, young Ned,’ said Rollo condescendingly.

Ned did not take this seriously. He thought Rollo was just being slyly malicious. ‘All the same, please ask her.’

Rollo smiled, and that worried Ned, for it was the smile he had worn when he had permission to flog one of the younger pupils at the school.

Rollo said: ‘Margery is engaged to be married.’

‘What?’ Ned stared at him, feeling shocked and hurt, as if he had been clubbed from behind. He had not been sure what to expect, but he had not dreamed of this.

Rollo just looked back, smiling.

Ned said the first thing that came into his head. ‘Who to?’

‘She is going to marry Viscount Shiring.’

Ned said: ‘Bart?’ That was incredible. Of all the young men in the county, the slow-witted, humourless Bart Shiring was the least likely to capture Margery’s heart. The prospect that he would one day be the earl of Shiring might have been enough for many girls – but not for Margery, Ned was sure.

Or, at least, he would have been sure a year ago.

He said: ‘Are you making this up?’

It was a foolish question, he realized immediately. Rollo could be crafty and spiteful, but not stupid: he would not invent such a story, for fear of looking foolish when the truth came out.

Rollo shrugged. ‘The engagement will be announced tomorrow at the earl’s banquet.’

Tomorrow was the twelfth day of Christmas. If the earl of Shiring was having a celebration, it was certain that Ned’s family had been invited. So Ned would be there to hear the announcement, if Rollo was telling the truth.

‘Does she love him?’ Ned blurted out.

Rollo was not expecting that question, and it was his turn to be startled. ‘I don’t see why I should discuss that with you.’

His equivocation made Ned suspect that the answer was No. ‘Why do you look so shifty?’

Rollo bridled. ‘You’d better go, before I feel obliged to thrash you the way I used to.’

‘We’re not in school any longer,’ Ned said. ‘You might be surprised by which of us gets thrashed.’ He wanted to fight Rollo, and he was angry enough not to care whether he would win.

But Rollo was more circumspect. He walked to the door and held it open. ‘Goodbye,’ he said.

Ned hesitated. He did not want to go without seeing Margery. If he had known where her room was he might have run up the stairs. But he would look stupid opening bedroom doors at random in someone else’s house.

He picked up the silk and put it back in his satchel. ‘This isn’t the last word,’ he said. ‘You can’t keep her locked away for long. I will speak to her.’

Rollo ignored that, and stood patiently at the door.

Ned itched to punch Rollo, but supressed the urge with an effort: they were men now, and he could not start a fight with so little provocation. He felt outmanoeuvred. He hesitated for a long moment. He could not think what to do.

So he went out.

Rollo said: ‘Don’t hurry back.’

Ned walked the short distance down the main street to the house where he had been born.

The Willard place was opposite the west front of the cathedral. It had been enlarged, over the years, with haphazard extensions, and now it sprawled untidily over several thousand square feet. But it was comfortable, with massive fireplaces, a large dining room for convivial meals, and good feather beds. The place was home to Alice Willard and her two sons plus Grandma, the mother of Ned’s late father.

Ned went in and found his mother in the front parlour, which she used as an office when not at the waterfront warehouse. She leaped up from her chair at the writing table and hugged and kissed him. She was heavier than she had been a year ago, he saw right away; but he decided not to say so.

He looked around. The room had not changed. Her favourite painting was there, a picture of Christ and the adulteress surrounded by a crowd of hypocritical Pharisees who wanted to stone her to death. Alice liked to quote Jesus: ‘He that is without sin among you, let him first cast a stone at her.’ It was also an erotic picture, for the woman’s breasts were exposed, a sight that had at one time given young Ned vivid dreams.

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