Read A Column of Fire Online

Authors: Ken Follett

A Column of Fire (59 page)

How big was it now? Ebrima and Carlos were on their way to the open-air meeting to find out. City councillors wanted to know just how popular the alternative religion was. It was difficult to tell, normally, because Protestantism was semi-hidden; today’s meeting would be a rare chance to see how many Protestants there really were. So a councillor had unofficially asked Carlos and Ebrima, as solid Catholic citizens without official status, to discreetly count them.

Judging by the numbers on the road, the total was going to be higher than expected.

As they walked, Ebrima asked: ‘How is the painting coming along?’

‘It’s almost finished.’ Carlos had commissioned a top Antwerp artist to paint a picture for the cathedral. Ebrima knew that in his prayers Carlos thanked God for his gifts and asked that he would be allowed to keep them. Like Ebrima, he did not take his prosperity for granted. He often mentioned the story of Job, the man who had everything and lost it all, and he would quote: ‘The Lord giveth, and the Lord taketh away.’

Ebrima was intrigued that Carlos did not reject the Church after the persecution he had suffered in Seville. Carlos was not very forthcoming about his spiritual life, but over the years Ebrima had gathered, from casual remarks and hints, that Carlos found great consolation in Catholic services, something similar to what Ebrima got from the water rite. Neither of them felt the same at an earnest Protestant service in a whitewashed church.

Now Ebrima said: ‘What subject did you decide upon, for the painting, in the end?’

‘The miracle at Cana, when Jesus turned the water into wine.’

Ebrima laughed. ‘Your favourite Bible story. I wonder why.’ Carlos’s love of wine was well known.

Carlos smiled. ‘It will be unveiled in the cathedral next week.’

The painting would, technically, be a gift from the city’s metalworkers, but everyone would know that it had been bought with Carlos’s money. This was a measure of how quickly Carlos had become one of Antwerp’s leading citizens. He was amiable and gregarious and very smart, and might be a city councillor one day.

Ebrima was a different kind of man, introverted and cautious. He was just as smart as Carlos but he had no political ambitions. Also, he preferred to keep his money for himself.

Carlos added: ‘We’ll have a big party afterwards. I hope you and Evi will come.’

‘Of course.’

They heard the singing before they reached their destination. Ebrima felt the hairs on the back of his neck stand up. The sound was awesome. He was used to chorus singing by choirs in Catholic churches – quite large choirs in cathedrals – but this was different. He had never before heard thousands of voices raised in the same song.

The road passed through a little wood then emerged at the top of a shallow rise from where they could see the whole of the meadow. It sloped down to a shallow stream and up the far side, and the entire space of ten acres or more was covered with men, women and children. On the far side a pastor stood on a makeshift platform, leading the singing.

The hymn was in French:

Si seurement, que quand au val viendroye

D’umbre de mort, rien de mal ne craindroye . . .

Ebrima understood the French words and recognized them as a translation from the familiar Latin of the twenty-third psalm, which he had heard in church – but not like this. The sound seemed a mighty phenomenon of nature, making him think of a gale over the ocean. They really believed what they were singing, that as they walked through the valley of the shadow of death they would fear no evil.

Ebrima spotted his stepson, Matthus, not far away. Matthus still worshipped with his mother and stepfather every Sunday but, lately, he had started to criticize the Catholic Church. His mother urged him to keep his doubts to himself, but he could not: he was seventeen, and for him right was right and wrong was wrong. Now Ebrima was troubled to see him with a group of youths, all carrying unpleasant-looking clubs.

Carlos saw him at the same time. ‘Those boys seem to be looking for a fight,’ he said anxiously.

But the atmosphere in the meadow was peaceful and happy, and Ebrima said hopefully: ‘I think they’ll be disappointed today.’

‘What a lot of people,’ Carlos said.

‘How many, do you think?’

‘Thousands.’

‘I don’t know how we’re going to count.’

Carlos was clever with numbers. ‘Let’s say there’s half this side of the stream and half the other. Now imagine a line from here to the preacher. How many in the near quarter? Divide it into four again.’

Ebrima took a guess. ‘Five hundred in each sixteenth?’

Carlos did not respond to that, but said: ‘Here comes trouble.’

He was staring over Ebrima’s shoulder, and Ebrima turned to look for the cause. He saw at once what had alerted Carlos. Coming along the road through the wood was a small group of clergy and men-at-arms.

If they had come to break up the meeting, they were too few. This armed crowd, full of righteousness, would wipe them out.

In the centre of the group was a priest in his mid-sixties wearing an ostentatious silver cross outside his black robe. As he came closer, Ebrima saw that he had dark, deep-set eyes either side of a high-bridged nose, and a mouth set in a hard, determined line. Ebrima did not recognize the man, but Carlos did. ‘That’s Pieter Titelmans, dean of Ronse,’ he said. ‘The Grand Inquisitor.’

Ebrima looked anxiously at Matthus and his friends. They had not yet spotted the newcomer. What would they do when they realized that the Grand Inquisitor had come to spy on their meeting?

As the group approached, Carlos said: ‘Let’s stay out of his way – he knows me.’

But he was too late. Titelmans met his eye, registered surprise, and said: ‘I’m disappointed to see you in this nest of ungodliness.’

‘I’m a good Catholic!’ Carlos protested.

Titelmans tilted back his head, like a hungry hawk spotting movement in the grass. ‘What would a good Catholic be doing at a Protestant psalm-singing orgy?’

Ebrima answered him. ‘The city council needs to know how many Protestants there are in Antwerp. We’ve been sent here to count them.’

Titelmans looked sceptical and spoke to Carlos. ‘Why would I take the word of that Ethiopian? He’s probably a Muslim.’

If only you knew, thought Ebrima. Then he recognized one of Titelmans’s entourage, a middle-aged man with salt-and-pepper hair and the flushed complexion of one who loves wine. ‘Father Huus, there, knows me,’ he said. Huus was a canon of Antwerp Cathedral.

Huus said quietly: ‘Both these men are good Catholics, Dean Pieter. They go to St James’s parish church.’

The psalm came to an end and the preacher began to speak. Some people pressed closer to hear his words shouted across the field. Others noticed Titelmans with his big silver cross, and there were angry mutterings.

Huus said nervously: ‘Sir, there are more Protestants here than we imagined possible and, if violence were to break out, we have too few men to protect you.’

Titelmans ignored him. Looking sly, he said: ‘If you two are what you claim to be, you can tell me the names of some of these wicked men.’ He indicated the congregation with a wide sweep of his arm.

Ebrima was not going to betray his neighbours to a torturer, and he knew Carlos would feel the same. He saw that Carlos was about to make an indignant protest, and forestalled him. ‘Of course, Dean Pieter,’ he said. ‘We’ll be glad to give you names.’ He made a pantomime of looking around, then said: ‘At the moment I don’t see anyone I know, unfortunately.’

‘That’s unlikely. There must be seven or eight thousand people here.’

‘Antwerp is a city of eighty thousand inhabitants. I don’t know them all.’

‘Just the same, you must recognize a few.’

‘I don’t think so. Perhaps it’s because all my friends are Catholics.’

Titelmans was stumped, and Ebrima was relieved. He had survived the interrogation.

Then he heard a voice cry out, in the local Brabant Dutch dialect: ‘Carlos! Ebrima! Good day!’

Ebrima spun around to see Albert Willemsen, his brother-in-law, the iron maker who had helped them when they first came to Antwerp six years ago. Albert had built a blast furnace just like theirs, and all had done well. With Albert were his wife, Betje, and their daughter, Drike, now fourteen, a slim adolescent with an angelic face. Albert and his family had embraced Protestantism.

‘Don’t you think this is great?’ Albert enthused. ‘All these people singing God’s word, and no one to tell them to shut up!’

Carlos said quietly: ‘Careful what you say.’

But the ebullient Albert had not noticed Titelmans or his cross. ‘Oh, come on, now, Carlos, you’re a man of tolerance, not one of those hardliners. You can’t possibly see anything here that would displease the God of love.’

Ebrima said urgently to Albert: ‘Shut up.’

Albert looked hurt and puzzled, then Betje pointed to the Grand Inquisitor, and Albert turned pale.

But others were noticing Titelmans, and most of the nearby Protestants had now turned away from the preacher to stare. Matthus and his friends were approaching, clubs in hands. Ebrima called out: ‘Stay back, you boys, I don’t want you here.’

Matthus ignored his stepfather and stood close to Drike. He was a big lad who had not yet grown used to his size. His adolescent face wore a look that was part threatening, part fearful. However, his attitude to Drike seemed protective, and Ebrima wondered if the boy might be in love. I must ask Evi, he thought.

Father Huus said: ‘We should return to the city now, Dean Pieter.’

Titelmans seemed determined not to go away empty-handed. Pointing to Albert, he said: ‘Tell me, Father Huus, what is that man’s name?’

Huus said: ‘I’m sorry, dean, I don’t know the man.’

Ebrima knew that was a brave lie.

Titelmans turned to Carlos. ‘Well,
you
obviously know him – he speaks to you like an old friend. Who is he?’

Carlos hesitated.

Titelmans was right, Ebrima thought: Carlos could not pretend not to know Albert, after such an effusive greeting.

Titelmans said: ‘Come, come! If you’re as good a Catholic as you claim to be, you’ll be glad to identify such a heretic. If you don’t, you shall be questioned in another place, where we have means of making you honest.’

Carlos shuddered, and Ebrima guessed he was thinking of Pedro Ruiz undergoing the water torture in Seville.

Albert spoke bravely. ‘I shan’t allow my friends to be tortured on my account,’ he said. ‘My name is Albert Willemsen.’

‘Profession?’

‘Iron maker.’

‘And the women?’

‘Leave them out of this.’

‘No one is left out of God’s mercy.’

‘I don’t know who they are,’ Albert said desperately. ‘They’re two prostitutes I met on the road.’

‘They don’t look like prostitutes. But I shall learn the truth.’ Titelmans turned to Huus. ‘Make a note of the name: Albert Willemsen, iron maker.’ He gathered up the skirts of his robe, turned, and walked back the way he had come, followed by his little entourage.

The others watched him go.

Carlos said: ‘Shit.’

*

T
HE NORTH TOWER
of Antwerp Cathedral was more than four hundred feet high. It had been designed as one of a pair, but the south tower had not been built. Ebrima thought it was more impressive on its own, a single finger pointing straight up to heaven.

He could not help feeling awestruck as he entered the nave. The narrow central aisle had a vaulted ceiling that seemed impossibly high. It sometimes made him wonder if the god of the Christians might be real, after all. Then he would remember that nothing they built could compete with the power and majesty of a river.

Above the high altar was the pride of the city, a large carving of Christ crucified between two thieves. Antwerp was wealthy and cultured, and its cathedral was rich in paintings, sculptures, stained glass, and precious objects. And today Ebrima’s friend and partner, Carlos, would add to that treasure.

Ebrima hoped that this would make up for their abrasive encounter with the loathsome Pieter Titelmans. It was a bad thing to have the Grand Inquisitor for an enemy.

On the south side was a chapel dedicated to Urban, the patron saint of winemakers. There the new painting hung, covered by a red velvet cloth. Seats in the little chapel had been reserved for Carlos’s friends and family and for the officials of the metalworkers’ guild. Standing nearby, eager to see the new picture, were a hundred or so neighbours and fellow businessmen, all in their best clothes.

Ebrima saw that Carlos was glowing with happiness. He was seated in a place of honour in the church that was the centre of the great city. This ceremony would confirm that he belonged here. He felt loved and respected and safe.

Father Huus arrived to perform the service of dedication. In his short sermon he said what a good Christian Carlos was, raising his children in piety and spending his money to enrich the cathedral. He even hinted that Carlos was destined to play a part in the city’s government one day. Ebrima liked Huus. He often preached against Protestantism, but preaching was as far as he wanted to go. Ebrima felt sure he must be reluctant to help Titelmans, and did so only under pressure.

The children became fidgety during the prayers. It was hard for them to listen for long to someone speaking their own language, let alone Latin. Carlos shushed them, but gently: he was an indulgent father.

As the service came to an end, Huus asked Carlos to step forward and unveil the painting.

Carlos took hold of the red velvet cover, then hesitated. Ebrima thought he might be about to make a speech, which would be a mistake: ordinary people did not speak out in church, unless they were Protestants. Then Carlos pulled at the velvet, nervously at first, then more vigorously. At last the cover came down like a crimson waterfall, and the picture was revealed.

The wedding was shown taking place in a grand town house that might have been the home of an Antwerp banker. Jesus sat at the head of the table in a blue robe. Next to him, the host of the feast was a broad-shouldered man with a bushy black beard, very like Carlos; and next to Carlos sat a fair smiling woman who might have been Imke. A buzz of comment arose from the group standing in the nave, and there were smiles and laughter as they identified other faces among the guests: there was Ebrima in an Arab-style hat, with Evi next to him in a gown that emphasized her large bust; a richly dressed man next to Imke was clearly her father, Jan Wolman; and the empty wine jars were being examined by a tall, thin, dismayed-looking steward who resembled Adam Smits, Antwerp’s best-known wine merchant. There was even a dog that looked just like Carlos’s hound, Samson.

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