Read A Column of Fire Online

Authors: Ken Follett

A Column of Fire (64 page)

They had discussed Elizabeth night and day for a month, talking over her religious convictions, her beliefs about monarchy, her reputed learning, and her famously imperious personality. They had tried to guess what decision she would make: would she help Mary regain her throne, or not? They had reached no conclusion – or, rather, they had reached a different conclusion every day. But now they would find out.

Elizabeth’s messenger was a little older than Alison, almost thirty, she guessed. He was slim, with a pleasant smile and golden-brown eyes. His clothes were good but unostentatious. Looking closely, Alison was surprised to recognize him. She glanced at Mary and saw a slight frown, as if she, too, was trying to place him. As he bowed low to the queen and nodded to Alison she remembered where they had met. ‘St Dizier!’ she said.

‘Seven years ago,’ he said. He spoke French: he knew, or had guessed, that Mary was most comfortable in this tongue, Scots being her second language and English a distant third. His manner was polite but relaxed. ‘I’m Sir Ned Willard.’

Alison thought his careful good manners cloaked a dangerous toughness, like a velvet scabbard for a sharp-edged sword. She spoke warmly in an attempt to soften him. ‘Sir Ned, now!’ she said. ‘Congratulations.’

‘You’re very kind.’

Alison remembered that Ned had pretended to be merely a clerk to James Stuart, a pretence that had been revealed when he spoke so challengingly to Pierre Aumande.

Mary said: ‘You tried to persuade me not to go to Scotland.’

‘You should have taken my advice,’ he said unsmilingly.

Mary ignored that and got down to business. ‘I am the queen of Scotland,’ she said. ‘Queen Elizabeth won’t deny that.’

‘No, indeed,’ said Ned.

‘I was illegally imprisoned by traitors among my subjects. Again, I feel sure my cousin Elizabeth will agree.’

They were not quite cousins, of course, but more distantly related: Elizabeth’s grandfather, King Henry VII of England, was Mary’s great-grandfather. But Sir Ned did not quibble.

Mary went on: ‘And I came here to England of my own free will. All I ask is the chance to speak to Elizabeth in person, and to beg for her assistance.’

‘I will certainly give her that message,’ said Ned.

Alison suppressed a groan of disappointment. Ned was prevaricating. That was bad news.

Mary bristled. ‘Give her the message?’ she said indignantly. ‘I expected you to bring me her decision!’

Ned was not flustered. Perhaps it was not the first time he had had to deal with an angry queen. ‘Her majesty can’t make such a decision immediately,’ he said in the calm tones of reason.

‘Why not?’

‘Other matters must be resolved first.’

Mary was not to be fobbed off that easily. ‘What matters?’

Ned said reluctantly: ‘The death of your husband, Lord Darnley, the king consort of Scotland and the cousin of Queen Elizabeth, remains . . . unexplained.’

‘That is nothing to do with me!’

‘I believe you,’ said Ned. Alison suspected he did not. ‘And her majesty Queen Elizabeth believes you.’ That was not true either. ‘But we must establish the facts to the satisfaction of the world before you can be received at Elizabeth’s court. Her majesty hopes that you, as a queen yourself, will understand that.’

This was rejection, Alison thought, and she wanted to weep. The murder of Darnley was not the real issue; it was a pretext. The plain fact was that Elizabeth did not want to meet Mary.

And that meant she did not want to help Mary.

Mary came to the same conclusion. ‘This is cruelly unjust!’ she said, standing up. Her face reddened, and tears came to her eyes. ‘How can my cousin treat me so coldly?’

‘She asks you to be patient. She will provide for all your needs meanwhile.’

‘I do not accept this decision. I shall sail to France. My family there will give me the help Elizabeth denies me.’

‘Queen Elizabeth would not want you to bring a French army to Scotland.’

‘Then I shall simply go back to Edinburgh, and take my chances against my treacherous half-brother, your friend James Stuart.’

Ned hesitated. Alison saw that his face was a little pale, and he clasped his hands behind his back as if to stop himself fidgeting uneasily. The wrath of a queen was a dreadful sight. But Ned held all the cards. His voice, when he spoke, was strong and his words were uncompromising. ‘I’m afraid that will not be possible.’

It was Mary’s turn to look fearful. ‘What on earth can you mean?’

‘The queen’s orders are that you shall remain here, until the English courts can clear you of complicity in the murder of Lord Darnley.’

Alison felt tears come to her eyes. ‘No!’ she cried. This was the worst possible outcome.

‘I’m sorry to bring you such unwelcome news,’ he said, and Alison believed he meant it. He was a kind man with an unkind message.

Mary’s voice was shaky. ‘So Queen Elizabeth will not receive me at court?’

‘No,’ said Ned.

‘She will not let me go to France?’

‘No,’ he said again.

‘And I may not return home to Scotland?’

‘No,’ Ned said for the third time.

‘So I am a prisoner?’

‘Yes,’ said Ned.

‘Again,’ said Mary.


When his mother died, Ned felt sad and bereft and alone but, most of all, he felt angry. Alice Willard’s last years should have been luxurious and triumphant. Instead, she had been ruined by a religious quarrel, and had died thinking herself a failure.

It was Easter 1570. By chance Barney was at home, in a short break between sea voyages. On Easter Monday the brothers celebrated the resurrection of the dead in Kingsbridge Cathedral, then the next day they stood side by side in the cemetery as their mother’s coffin was lowered into the grave where their father already lay. There was hot resentment in Ned’s stomach, bilious and sour, and he vowed again to spend his life making sure that men such as Bishop Julius would not have the power to destroy honest merchants like Alice Willard.

As they walked away from the grave, Ned tried to turn his mind to practical matters, and he said to Barney: ‘The house is yours, of course.’

Barney was the elder son. He had shaved off his bushy beard to reveal a face that was prematurely aged, at thirty-two, by cold saltwater winds and the glare of the unshaded sun. He said: ‘I know, but I have little use for it. Please live there whenever you’re in Kingsbridge.’

‘Is seafaring going to be your life, then?’


Barney had prospered. After leaving the
he had been made captain of another vessel, with a share in the profits, and then he had bought his own ship. He had their mother’s knack for making money.

Ned looked across the market square to the house where he had been born. He loved the old place, with its view of the cathedral. ‘I’ll be glad to take care of it for you. Janet and Malcolm Fife will do the work, but I’ll keep an eye on them.’

‘They’re getting old,’ Barney said.

‘They’re in their fifties. But Eileen is only twenty-two.’

‘And perhaps she might marry a man who would like to take over Malcolm’s job.’

Ned knew better. ‘Eileen will never marry anyone but you, Barney.’

Barney shrugged. Many women had fallen hopelessly in love with him; poor Eileen was just another one.

Ned said: ‘Aren’t you ever tempted to settle down?’

‘There’s no point. A sailor hardly ever sees his wife. What about you?’

Ned thought for a minute. The death of his mother had made him aware that his time on earth was limited. Of course he had known that before, but now it was brought home to him; and it made him ask himself if the life he led was the one he really wanted. He surprised himself with his answer to Barney’s question. ‘I want what they had,’ he said, looking back at the grave where both parents lay. ‘A lifelong partnership.’

Barney said: ‘They started early. They were married at twenty, or thereabouts, weren’t they? You’re already ten years behind schedule.’

‘I don’t live the life of a monk . . .’

‘I’m glad to hear it.’

‘But somehow I never come across a woman I want to spend my life with.’

‘With one exception,’ said Barney, looking over Ned’s shoulder.

Ned turned and saw Margery Fitzgerald. She must have been in church during the service, but he had not seen her in the crowd. Now his heart faltered. She had dressed sombrely for the funeral, but as always she wore a hat, today a purple velvet cap pinned at an angle to her luxuriant curls. She was speaking earnestly to old Father Paul, a former monk at Kingsbridge Priory, now a canon at the cathedral, and probably a secret Catholic. Margery’s obstinate Catholicism should have repelled Ned, but on the contrary he admired her idealism. ‘I’m afraid there’s only one of her, and she married someone else,’ he said. This was a fruitless subject of discussion, he thought impatiently. He said: ‘Where will your next sea voyage take you?’

‘I want to go to the New World again. I don’t like the slave trade – the cargo is too liable to die on the voyage – but over there they need just about everything, except sugar.’

Ned smiled. ‘And I seem to remember you mentioning a girl . . .’

‘Did I? When?’

‘That sounds to me like a yes.’

Barney looked bashful, as if he did not want to admit to a deeper feeling. ‘Well, it’s true that I’ve never met anyone like Bella.’

‘That was seven years ago.’

‘I know. She’s probably married to a wealthy planter by now, with two or three children.’

‘But you want to find out for sure.’ Ned was quite surprised. ‘You’re not very different from me after all.’

They drifted towards the ruined monastery. ‘The Church never did anything with these old buildings,’ Ned said. ‘Mother had a dream of turning them into an indoor market.’

‘She was smart. It’s a good idea. We should do it one day.’

‘I’ll never have enough money.’

‘I might, though, if the sea is kind to me.’

Margery approached, followed by a lady-in-waiting and a man-at-arms: she rarely went anywhere alone, now that she was the countess of Shiring. Her little retinue stood a few yards off as she shook Barney’s hand, then Ned’s, and said: ‘What a sad day.’

Barney said: ‘Thank you, Margery.’

‘But a wonderful crowd for the funeral. Your mother was very much loved.’


‘Bart begs your pardon for not being here – he had to go to Winchester.’

Barney said: ‘Will you excuse me? I have to speak to Dan Cobley. I want him to invest in my next voyage – to spread the risk.’ He moved away, leaving Ned alone with Margery.

Margery’s voice changed to a low, intimate tone. ‘How are you, Ned?’

‘My mother was sixty, so it wasn’t a shock to me,’ Ned said. That was what he told everyone, but it was glib, and he felt an urge to say more to Margery. He added bleakly: ‘But you only get one mother.’

‘I know. I didn’t even like my father, especially after he made me marry Bart, but still I cried when he passed away.’

‘That generation has almost gone.’ Ned smiled. ‘Remember that Twelfth Night party, twelve years ago, when William Cecil came? In those days they seemed to rule the world: your father, my mother and Bart’s father.’

Margery’s eyes glinted with mischief. ‘Of course I remember.’

Ned knew she was thinking of the fevered minutes they had spent kissing in the disused bread oven. He smiled at the memory. On impulse he said: ‘Come to the house for a cup of wine. Let’s talk about old times. This is a day for remembering.’

They threaded their way slowly through the market. It was crowded: business did not stop for a funeral. They crossed the main street and went into the Willard house. Ned showed Margery into the little front parlour, where his mother had always sat, with the view of the west front of the cathedral.

Margery turned to the two servants who had followed her in. ‘You two can go to the kitchen.’

Ned said: ‘Janet Fife will give you a mug of ale and something to eat. And please ask her to bring wine for your mistress and me.’

They went away, and Ned closed the door. ‘How is your baby?’ he said.

‘Bartlet isn’t a baby any longer,’ she said. ‘He’s six years old, walking and talking like a grown-up, and carrying a wooden sword.’

‘And Bart has no idea . . .’

‘Don’t even say it.’ Margery lowered her voice to a whisper. ‘Now that Swithin’s dead, you and I are the only people who know. We must keep the secret for ever.’

‘Of course.’

Margery was quite sure that Bartlet had been fathered by Swithin, not Bart; and Ned thought she was almost certainly right. In twelve years of marriage she had conceived only once, and that was when her father-in-law raped her.

He said: ‘Does it change how you feel?’

‘About Bartlet? No. I adored him from the moment I saw him.’

‘And Bart?’

‘Also dotes on him. The fact that Bartlet looks like Swithin seems quite natural, of course. Bart wants to turn the boy into a copy of himself in every way . . .’

‘But that’s natural, too.’

‘Listen, Ned. I know men think that if a woman conceives that means she enjoyed it.’

‘I don’t believe that.’

‘Because it isn’t true. Ask any woman.’

Ned saw that she was desperate for reassurance. ‘I don’t need to ask anyone. Really.’

‘You don’t think I lured Swithin, do you?’

‘Certainly not.’

‘I hope you feel sure.’

‘I’m more sure of that than of my own name.’

Tears came to her eyes. ‘Thank you.’

Ned took her hand.

After a minute she said: ‘Can I ask you another question?’

‘All right.’

‘Has there been anyone else?’

He hesitated.

The pause was enough for her. ‘So there has,’ she said.

‘I’m sorry, but I’m not a monk.’

‘More than one, then.’

Ned said nothing.

Margery said: ‘Years ago, Susannah Brecknock told me she had a lover half her age. It was you, wasn’t it?’

Ned was amazed by the accuracy of her intuition. ‘How did you guess?’

‘It just seems right. She said he didn’t love her, but she didn’t care, because he was such fun to lie with.’

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