Read A Column of Fire Online

Authors: Ken Follett

A Column of Fire (61 page)

The glass Ebrima had heard breaking was a window in the house of Father Huus, who lived in the same street as the ironworks; but that appeared to have been a passing fancy, and the mob was heading for the city centre in a seemingly purposeful mood.

Carlos said: ‘What the hell are they up to?’

Ebrima could guess, and he hoped he was wrong.

The three men followed the crowd to the market square where Drike had been rescued. There the youths gathered in the centre, and one of them asked for God’s blessing, speaking Brabant Dutch. Among Protestants, anyone could pray extempore, and they could use their own language, instead of Latin. Ebrima was afraid they had come to the market square because that was where the cathedral stood, and his fear turned out to be right. When the prayer ended they all turned as one, clearly following a prearranged plan, and marched to the cathedral.

The entrance was a pointed gothic arch under an ogee. On the tympanum was carved God in heaven, and the concentric orders of the arch were filled with angels and saints. Next to Ebrima, Carlos gasped with horror as the group began to attack the carvings with their hammers and makeshift weapons. As they smashed the stonework they yelled Bible quotations, making the scriptures sound like curses.

Carlos yelled at them: ‘Stop this! There will be retaliation!’ No one took any notice.

Ebrima could tell that Matthus was itching to join them. As the boy took a step forward, Ebrima took his arm in a strong iron-maker’s grip. ‘What would your mother say?’ he said. ‘She worships here! Stop, and think.’

‘They’re doing God’s work!’ Matthus yelled.

The rioters discovered that the big cathedral doors were locked: the priests had seen them coming. Ebrima felt relieved: at least the damage they could do was limited. Perhaps they would wind down now. He released Matthus’s arm.

But the mob ran round to the north of the church, looking for another way in. The onlookers followed. To Ebrima’s consternation they found a side door unlocked: the priests in their panic must have overlooked it. The mob pushed through into the church, and Matthus pulled away from Ebrima.

By the time Ebrima got inside, the Protestants were running in all directions, yelling in triumph, lashing out at any carved or painted image. They seemed drunk, though not with wine. They were possessed by a frenzy of destruction. Both Carlos and Ebrima yelled at them to stop, and other older citizens joined in the appeal, but it was useless.

There were a few priests in the chancel, and Ebrima saw some of them fleeing through the south porch. One did the opposite, and came towards the intruders, holding up both hands as if to stop them. Ebrima recognized Father Huus. ‘You are God’s children,’ he kept saying. He walked directly at the charging youths. ‘Stop this, and let’s talk.’ A big lad crashed into him, knocking him to the floor, and the others ran over him.

They pulled down precious hangings and threw them into a pile in the middle of the crossing, where screeching girls set fire to them using lighted candles from an altar. Wooden statues were smashed, ancient books were torn, and costly vestments were ripped up; and the debris was added to the flames.

Ebrima was appalled, not just by the destruction but by its inevitable consequences. This could not be allowed to pass. It was the most outrageous provocation of both King Felipe and Pope Pius, the two most powerful men in Europe. Antwerp would be punished. It might be a long time coming, for the wheels of international politics turned slowly; but when it happened it would be dreadful.

Some of the group were even more serious. They had clearly planned this, and they gathered around the high altar, their target obviously the massive sculpture. They quickly set their ladders and pulleys in positions that they must have pre-arranged. Carlos was aghast. ‘They’re going to abuse the crucified Christ!’ he said. He stared in horror as they tied ropes around Jesus and hacked at his legs to weaken the structure. They kept shouting about idolatry, but it was clear even to the pagan Ebrima that it was the Protestants who were perpetrating the blasphemy here. They worked the pulleys with determined concentration, tightening the ropes, until at last the dying Jesus tilted forward, cracked at the knees, and was finally torn from his place and thrown to the ground, face down. Not satisfied, the Protestants attacked the fallen monument with hammers, smashing the arms and head with a glee that seemed satanic.

The two carved thieves, crucified either side of where Jesus had been nailed, now seemed to look mournfully down on his shattered body.

Someone brought a flagon of communion wine and a golden chalice, and they all congratulated one another and drank.

A shout from the south side made Ebrima and Carlos turn. With a shock, Ebrima saw that a little group had gathered in the chapel of St Urban, staring up at the painting Carlos had commissioned of the miracle at Cana.

‘No!’ Carlos roared, but no one heard.

They ran across the church, but before they got there one of the boys had raised a dagger and slashed the canvas from one side to the other. Carlos threw himself at the boy, knocking him to the ground, and the knife went flying; but others grabbed both Carlos and Ebrima and held them fast, struggling but helpless.

The boy Carlos had attacked got up, apparently unhurt. He picked up his knife and slashed the canvas again and again, tearing the images of Jesus and the disciples, and the representations of Carlos and his family and friends among the painted wedding guests.

A girl brought a taper and put it to the shredded canvas. The painted fabric first smouldered and smoked. Then eventually a small flame appeared. It spread rapidly, and soon the entire picture was blazing.

Ebrima ceased to struggle. He looked at Carlos, who had closed his eyes. The young hooligans let them both go and went off to vandalize something else.

Released, Carlos fell to his knees and wept.


Alison McKay was in prison with Mary Queen of Scots.

They were confined in a castle, on an island, in the middle of a Scottish lake called Loch Leven. They were guarded day and night by fifteen men-at-arms, more than enough to watch over two young women.

And they were going to escape.

Mary was indomitable. She did not have good judgement: Alison admitted to herself, in the darkest hours of the night, that just about every decision the queen had ever taken had turned out badly. But Mary never gave up. Alison loved that about her.

Loch Leven was a grim place. The house was a square tower of grey stone with small, mean windows to keep out the cold wind that blew hard across the water, even in summer. It was set in a compound less than a hundred yards across. Outside was a narrow strip of scrubland, then the lake. When the weather was stormy, the strip was submerged and the waves lashed the stones of the perimeter wall. The lake was broad, and it took half an hour for a strong man to row to the mainland.

This was a hard prison from which to escape, but they had to try. They were miserable. Alison had never imagined, until now, that boredom could drive her to contemplate suicide.

They had been raised in the glittering court of France, surrounded by people in gorgeous clothes and priceless jewels, invited every day to banquets and pageants and plays. Their everyday conversation had been of political plots and social intrigue. The men around them started wars and ended them; the women were queens and the mothers of kings. After that, Loch Leven was purgatory.

It was 1568. Alison was twenty-seven and Mary twenty-five. They had been at Loch Leven almost a year, and Alison had spent much of that time brooding about where they had gone wrong.

Mary’s first mistake had been to fall for and then marry Queen Elizabeth’s cousin Henry, Lord Darnley, a charming drunk who had syphilis. Alison had felt torn: happy to see Mary in love, but appalled by her choice of man.

Love quickly wore off, and when Mary became pregnant, Darnley murdered her private secretary, whom he suspected of fathering the child.

If there was a nobleman in Scotland even worse than Darnley it was, in Alison’s opinion, the quarrelsome and violent Earl of Bothwell, and Mary’s second mistake had been to encourage Bothwell to kill Darnley. Bothwell had succeeded, but everyone knew or guessed what had happened.

Neither Mary nor Alison had anticipated the reaction of the Scots. They were an upright nation, and Catholics and Protestants alike disapproved of this royal immorality. Mary’s standing with the Scottish people fell off a cliff.

Alison felt that a storm of bad luck was sweeping over them when Bothwell kidnapped them and forced Mary to spend the night with him. In other circumstances the nation would have been outraged by this attack on their queen, and would have rallied to her defence; but by then her reputation was stained, and Mary could not feel sure of popular support. Together they decided the only way to restore Mary’s respectability was for her to marry Bothwell, and pretend that he had not really raped her. Bothwell’s fed-up wife obtained a quickie divorce that was not recognized by the Catholic Church, and they were married immediately.

That was the third mistake.

Twenty-six outraged Scottish noblemen raised an army and overwhelmed the forces of Bothwell and Mary. They captured her, forced her to abdicate in favour of her one-year-old son, James, and imprisoned her here at Loch Leven – without her baby boy.

All these events were undoubtedly watched avidly by Queen Elizabeth of England. In principle, Elizabeth supported Mary as the incontestably rightful queen of Scotland; but in practice no rescue party appeared on the horizon. Elizabeth’s true attitude was probably that of someone who hears two drunks fighting in the street at night: it did not matter who won so long as neither tried to get into the house.

While Mary was with Darnley, Alison married a good Catholic, a man with hazel eyes and a mane of blond hair who reminded her of Pierre Aumande. He was kind and affectionate, but he expected Alison to serve him, not Mary, which she found difficult, even though she knew she should have anticipated it. She became pregnant but miscarried after four months. Soon afterwards her husband died in a hunting accident, and it was almost a relief to Alison to return to her familiar role as Mary’s dedicated right-hand woman.

And now this.

‘No one else has loved me the way you love me,’ Mary had said during one of the long, dark Scottish evenings at Loch Leven, and Alison had blushed with a vague but strong emotion. ‘My father died when I was a baby,’ Mary had said. ‘My mother mostly lived elsewhere. All three of my husbands have been hopelessly weak in their different ways. You’ve been mother and father and husband to me. Isn’t that strange?’ It had made Alison cry.

Their jailer was Sir William Douglas, owner of Loch Leven. Mary had a remarkable power to win affection, and Sir William had fallen for her. He acted like an obliging host entertaining a distinguished house guest. His daughters adored Mary – they found the notion of an imprisoned queen madly romantic – but his wife, Lady Agnes, was not seduced. Agnes had a strong sense of duty, and she remained insistently watchful.

However, Agnes had just given birth to her seventh child and was still confined to her room, which was one reason why this was the moment for an escape bid.

Mary was still being guarded by Captain Drysdale and his men-at-arms. But today was Sunday 2 May, so the soldiers were enjoying the May Day revels – and drinking more than usual. Alison hoped they would become careless by late afternoon, when she and Mary planned to make their getaway.

It would be difficult, but they had collaborators.

Also resident at Loch Leven were Sir William’s handsome half-brother George, nicknamed Pretty Geordie; and Willie Douglas, a tall fifteen-year-old orphan who Alison thought was probably an illegitimate son of Sir William.

Mary had set out to win the heart of Pretty Geordie. She had been allowed to send for her clothes – although not her jewels – and she was able to dress well. In any case, George was no great challenge: Mary had always been alluring, and here on this tiny island she had no rivals. With such a small group of people in a confined space, romantic emotions could heat up fast. Alison guessed it was not difficult for Mary to play the game, for George was charming as well as good-looking. Mary’s feelings for him might even have been genuine.

Alison was not sure what favours Mary granted George: more than mere kisses, she assumed, for George was a grown man, but less than sexual intercourse, because Mary, with her besmirched reputation, could not risk the further disgrace of an illegitimate pregnancy. Alison did not ask Mary for the details. It was a long time since the happy days in Paris when they had been adolescent girls who told one another everything. But all that mattered now was that George was so badly smitten that he longed to play the part of the medieval knight and rescue his beloved from the castle of despair.

Alison herself had worked on young Willie. Again it was no great challenge, even though Alison was almost twice his age. Only just out of puberty, Willie would have fallen in love with any attractive woman who paid him attention. Alison needed only to talk to him, and ask him about his life, while standing a little too close to him; and to kiss him in a way that was almost sisterly, though not quite; and to smile when she caught him staring at her breasts; and to make arch remarks about ‘you men’ to bolster his courage. She had no need to grant sexual favours to this boy who was only just a man. In the deep recesses of her half-conscious mind she felt a tiny regret about this – something she was embarrassed to admit even to herself. But Willie succumbed easily, and was now her slave.

George and Willie had been smuggling Mary’s letters in and out of the prison for some months, but with difficulty. Escape would be much harder.

Mary could not cross the little compound without being seen, for it was home to about fifty people: as well as the family and the men-at-arms there were Sir William’s secretaries and a large staff of household servants. The gate was kept locked, and anyone who wanted to come and go had to get it unlocked or climb over the wall. Three or four boats were always pulled up on the beach, but Mary would need a strong accomplice to row her, and she could quickly be followed. Then, on the mainland, she would need friends with horses to whisk her away to a hiding place somewhere safe from pursuit.

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