Read A Column of Fire Online

Authors: Ken Follett

A Column of Fire (60 page)

The painting looked fine in the chapel, up against the ancient stones of the cathedral, sunnily lit by a south-facing window. The robes of the wealthy guests glowed orange, blue and bright green against the white of the tablecloth and the pale walls of the dining room.

Carlos was visibly thrilled. Father Huus shook his hand then took his leave. Everyone else wanted to congratulate Carlos, and he went around the crowd, smiling and accepting the plaudits of his fellow citizens. Eventually, he clapped his hands and said: ‘Everybody! You’re invited to my house! And I promise the wine won’t run out!’

They walked in procession through the serpentine streets of the town centre to Carlos’s house. He led them to the upstairs floor where food and wine stood ready on tables in the grand drawing room. The guests dug in with enthusiasm. They were joined by several Protestants who had not been in the cathedral, including Albert and his family.

Ebrima picked up a goblet and took a long swallow. Carlos’s wine was always good. He wiped his mouth with his sleeve. The wine warmed his blood and made him feel mellow. He talked amiably to Jan Wolman about business, to Imke about her children, and to Carlos briefly about a customer who was late paying his bill: the customer was here, enjoying Carlos’s hospitality, and Ebrima thought this was the moment to confront him and ask for the money, but Carlos did not want to spoil the mood. The guests became a little raucous. Children squabbled, adolescent boys tried to woo adolescent girls, and married men flirted with their friends’ wives. Parties were the same everywhere, Ebrima thought; even Africa.

Then Pieter Titelmans came in.

The first Ebrima knew of it was when a hush fell over the room, starting at the door and spreading to all four corners. He was talking to Albert about the merits of cast-iron cannons as compared with bronze when they both realized something was wrong and looked up. Titelmans stood in the doorway wearing his big silver cross, again accompanied by Father Huus and four men-at-arms.

Ebrima said: ‘What does that devil want?’

Albert said with nervous hopefulness: ‘Perhaps he’s come to congratulate Carlos on the painting.’

Carlos pushed through the quietened crowd and spoke to Titelmans with a show of amity. ‘Good day, Dean Pieter,’ he said. ‘Welcome to my house. Will you take a cup of wine?’

Titelmans ignored the question. ‘Are there any Protestants here?’ he said.

‘I don’t think so,’ Carlos said. ‘We’ve just come from the cathedral, where we unveiled—’

‘I know what you did at the cathedral,’ Titelmans interrupted rudely. ‘Are there any Protestants here?’

‘I can assure you, to the best of my knowledge—’

‘You’re about to lie to me. I can smell it.’

Carlos’s bonhomie began to crack. ‘If you don’t believe me, why ask the question?’

‘To test you. Now shut your mouth.’

Carlos sputtered: ‘I’m in my own house!’

Titelmans raised his voice so that everyone could hear. ‘I’m here to see Albert Willemsen.’

Titelmans seemed unsure which one was Albert – he had only seen him for a few minutes at Lord Hubert’s Pasture – and for a moment Ebrima hoped they might all pretend he was not present. But the crowd was not sufficiently quick-witted, and indeed many of them stupidly turned and looked directly at Albert.

After a moment of fearful hesitation, Albert stepped forward. With a show of bravado he said: ‘What do you want with me?’

‘And your wife,’ said Titelmans, pointing. Unfortunately Betje was standing close to Albert and Titelmans’s guess was correct. Looking pale and scared, Betje stepped forward.

‘And the daughter.’

Drike was not standing with her parents, and Titelmans surely would not remember a fourteen-year-old girl. ‘The child is not here,’ Carlos lied bravely. Perhaps she might be saved, Ebrima thought hopefully.

But she did not want to be saved. A girlish voice piped up: ‘I am Drike Willemsen.’

Ebrima’s heart sank.

He could see her, by the window, in a white dress, talking to his stepson Matthus, with Carlos’s pet cat in her arms.

Carlos said: ‘She’s a mere child, dean. Surely—’

But Drike was not finished. ‘And I am a Protestant,’ she said defiantly. ‘For which I thank the Lord.’

From the guests came a murmur of mixed admiration and dismay.

‘Come here,’ said Titelmans.

She crossed the room with her head held high, and Ebrima thought: Oh, hell.

‘Take the three of them away,’ said Titelmans to his entourage.

Someone shouted: ‘Why don’t you leave us in peace?’

Titelmans looked angrily towards the source of the jeer, but he could not see who had spoken. However, Ebrima knew: he had recognized the voice of young Matthus.

Another man shouted: ‘Yeah, go back to Ronse!’

The other guests started to cheer their approval and shout their own catcalls. Titelmans’s men-at-arms escorted the Willemsen family out of the room. As Titelmans turned to follow, Matthus threw a bread roll. It hit Titelmans’s back. He pretended not to notice. Then a goblet flew through the air and hit the wall close to him, splashing his robe. The booing became louder and cruder. Titelmans barely retained his dignity as he hurried through the door before anything else could threaten him.

The crowd laughed and clapped his exit. But Ebrima knew there was nothing to smile about.


young Drike was scheduled for two weeks later.

It was announced in the cathedral. Titelmans said that Albert and Betje had recanted their Protestantism, asked God’s forgiveness, and begged to be received back into the bosom of the Church. He probably knew their confessions were insincere, but he had to let them off with a fine. However, to everyone’s horror, Drike had refused to renounce her religion.

Titelmans would not let anyone visit her in prison, but Albert bribed the guards and got in anyway. However, he was unable to change her mind. With the idealism of the very young, she insisted she was ready to die rather than betray her Lord.

Ebrima and Evi went to see Albert and Betje the day before the burning. They wanted to give support and comfort to their friends, but it was hopeless. Betje wept without stopping, and Albert could barely speak. Drike was their only child.

That day a stake was planted in the pavement in the city centre, overlooked by the cathedral, the elegant Great Market building, and the grand, unfinished city hall. A cartload of dry firewood was dumped next to the stake.

The execution was scheduled for sunrise, and a crowd gathered before dawn. The mood was grim, Ebrima noted. When hated criminals such as thieves and rapists were executed, the spectators mocked them and cheered their death agonies; but that was not going to happen today. Many in the crowd were Protestants, and feared this might one day happen to them. The Catholics, such as Carlos, were angered by the Protestants’ troublemaking, and fearful that the French wars of religion would spread to the Netherlands; but few of them believed it was right to burn a girl to death.

Drike was led out of the town hall by Egmont, the executioner, a big man dressed in a leather smock and carrying a blazing torch. She wore the white dress in which she had been arrested. Ebrima saw at once that Titelmans, in his arrogance, had made a mistake. She looked like a virgin, which she undoubtedly was; and she had the pale beauty of paintings of the Virgin Mary. The crowd gave a collective gasp on seeing her. Ebrima said to his wife, Evi: ‘This is going to be a martyrdom.’ He glanced at Matthus and saw that the boy had tears in his eyes.

One of the two west doors of the cathedral opened, and Titelmans appeared at the head of a little flock of priests like black crows.

Two men-at-arms tied Drike to the stake and piled the firewood around her feet.

Titelmans began to speak to the crowd about truth and heresy. The man had no sense of the effect he had on people, Ebrima realized. Everything about him offended them: his hectoring tone, his haughty look, and the fact that he was not from this city.

Then Drike began to speak. Her treble rose above Titelmans’s shout. Her words were in French:

Mon Dieu me paist soubs sa puissance haute

C’est mon berger, de rien je n’auray faute . . .

It was the psalm the crowd had sung at Lord Hubert’s Pasture, the twenty-third, beginning
The Lord is my shepherd
. Emotion swamped the crowd like a tidal wave. Tears came to Ebrima’s eyes. Others in the crowd wept openly. Everyone felt they were present at a sacred tragedy.

Titelmans was furious. He spoke to the executioner, and Ebrima was close enough to hear his words: ‘You were supposed to pull out her tongue!’

There was a special tool, like a claw, for removing tongues. It had been devised as a punishment for liars, but was sometimes used to silence heretics, so that they could not preach to the crowd as they were dying.

Egmont said sullenly: ‘Only if specifically instructed.’

Drike said:

. . . En tect bien seur, joignant les beaulx herbages,

Coucher me faict, me meine aux clairs rivages . . .

She was looking up, and Ebrima felt sure she was seeing the green pastures and still waters waiting in the afterlife of all religions.

Titelmans said: ‘Dislocate her jaw.’

‘Very well,’ said Egmont. He was of course a man of blunted sensibility, but this instruction clearly offended even him, and he did not trouble to hide his distaste. Nevertheless, he handed his torch to a man-at-arms.

Next to Ebrima, Matthus turned around and shouted: ‘They’re going to dislocate her jaw!’

‘Be quiet!’ said his mother anxiously, but Matthus’s big voice had already reached far. There was a collective roar of anger. Matthus’s words were repeated throughout the crowd until everyone knew.

Matthus shouted: ‘Let her pray!’ and the cry was repeated: ‘Let her pray! Let her pray!’

Evi said: ‘You’ll get into trouble!’

Egmont went up to Drike and put his hands to her face. He thrust his thumbs into her mouth and took a firm grip of her jaw, so that he could wrench the bone from its sockets.

Ebrima sensed a sudden violent movement beside him, then Egmont was struck on the back of the head by a stone thrown by Matthus.

It was a big stone, aimed well and hurled hard by a strong seventeen-year-old arm, and Ebrima heard the thud as it hit Egmont’s skull. The executioner staggered, as if momentarily losing consciousness, and his hands fell from Drike’s face. Everyone cheered.

Titelmans saw the event slipping from his control. ‘All right, never mind, light the fire!’ he said.

Matthus shouted: ‘No!’

More stones were thrown, but they missed.

Egmont took back his torch and put it to the firewood. The dry sticks blazed up quickly.

Matthus pushed past Ebrima and ran out of the crowd towards Drike. Evi shouted: ‘Stop!’ Her son ignored her.

The men-at-arms drew their swords, but Matthus was too quick for them. He kicked the burning wood away from Drike’s feet then ran away, disappearing back into the crowd.

The men-at-arms came after him, swords raised. The crowd scattered before them, terrified. Evi wailed: ‘They’ll kill him!’

Ebrima saw that there was only one way to save the boy, and that was to start a general riot. It would not be difficult: the crowd was almost there already.

Ebrima pushed forward, and others went with him, surging around the now-undefended stake. Ebrima drew his dagger and cut the ropes that bound Drike. Albert appeared and picked her up – she did not weigh much – and they disappeared into the crowd.

The people turned on the priests, jostling them. The men-at-arms gave up searching for Matthus and returned to defend the clergy.

Titelmans hurried away towards the cathedral, and the priests went after him. Their walk turned into a run. The crowd let them go, jeering, and watched them as they passed through the elaborately carved stone archway, pushed open the great wooden door, and finally vanished into the darkness of the church.


family left Antwerp that night.

Ebrima was one of only a handful of people who knew they were going to Amsterdam. It was a smaller town, but farther to the north-east and therefore more removed from the centre of Spanish power at Brussels – for which reason it was prospering and growing rapidly.

Ebrima and Carlos bought Albert’s ironworks, paying him for it in gold which he took with him in locked saddlebags on a sturdy pony.

The lovelorn Matthus wanted to go with them, and Ebrima – who remembered, albeit dimly, the power of adolescent romance – would have let him; but Albert said that Drike was too young to marry, and they must wait a year. Then Matthus could come to Amsterdam and propose to her, if he still wanted to. Matthus swore that he would, and his mother said: ‘We’ll see.’

Titelmans went quiet. There were no further confrontations, no more arrests. Perhaps he had realized that Antwerp Catholics disliked his extremism. Or he might just be biding his time.

Ebrima wished the Protestants would quieten down, too, but they seemed to have become more confident, not to say arrogant. They demanded tolerance, and the right to worship as they wished, but they were never satisfied with that, he thought with exasperation. They believed their rivals were not just mistaken but evil. Catholic practices – the ways in which Europeans had worshipped for hundreds of years – were blasphemous, they said, and must be abolished. They did not practise the tolerance they preached.

It worried Ebrima that the Spanish overlords and their allies in the priesthood seemed to be losing their grip on authority. Hatred and violence seethed under the surface of city life. Like all entrepreneurs, he just wanted peace and stability so that he could do business.

He was doing just that, negotiating with a buyer in the ironworks, perspiring a little in the summer heat, on the twentieth day of August, when the trouble boiled over again.

He heard a commotion in the street: running footsteps, breaking glass, and the raucous shouts of over-excited men. He hurried out to see what was going on, and Carlos and Matthus joined him. A couple of hundred youths, including a handful of girls, were hurrying along the street. They carried ladders, pulleys and ropes as well as cruder tools such as wooden staffs, sledgehammers, iron bars and lengths of chain. ‘What are you doing?’ Ebrima shouted at them, but no one answered his question.

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