Read A Column of Fire Online

Authors: Ken Follett

A Column of Fire (65 page)

Ned was embarrassed that two women had discussed him in this way. ‘Are you angry?’ he said.

‘I have no right to be. I lie with Bart, why should you be celibate?’

‘But you were forced to marry.’

‘And you were seduced by a woman with a warm heart and a soft body. I’m not angry, I just envy her.’

Ned raised her hand to his lips.

The door opened and Ned hastily pulled his hand away.

The housekeeper came in with a jug of wine and a plate of nuts and dried fruits. Margery said kindly: ‘This is a sad day for you, too, Janet.’

Janet burst into tears and left without speaking.

‘Poor thing,’ said Margery.

‘She’s worked for my mother since she was a girl.’ Ned wanted to hold Margery’s hand again, but he restrained himself. Instead, he brought up a new topic. ‘I need to talk to Bart about a small problem.’

‘Oh? What?’

‘The queen has made me lord of Wigleigh.’

‘Congratulations! Now you’ll be rich.’

‘Not rich, but comfortable.’ Ned would collect rents from all the farmers in the village. It was how monarchs often paid their advisors – especially penny-pinching rulers such as Elizabeth.

Margery said: ‘So now you’re Sir Ned Willard of Wigleigh.’

‘My father always said Wigleigh traditionally belonged to our family. He thought we were descended from Merthin the bridge-builder. According to Timothy’s Book, Merthin’s brother, Ralph, was lord of Wigleigh, and Merthin built the watermill that is still there.’

‘So you’re descended from nobility.’

‘Gentry, at least.’

‘So what’s the problem you need to discuss with Bart?’

‘One of my tenants has cleared some of the forest beyond the stream, on land that belongs to you. He had no right, of course.’ Tenants were always trying to increase the size of their holdings surreptitiously. ‘But I don’t like to punish enterprise, so I want to work out some agreement that will compensate Bart for the loss of a couple of acres.’

‘Why don’t you come to New Castle for dinner one day next week, and talk to him?’

‘All right.’

‘Friday at noon?’

Suddenly Ned felt happy. ‘Yes,’ he said. ‘Friday is fine.’

*

M
ARGERY WAS ASHAMED
of how excited she felt about Ned’s visit.

She believed in fidelity. Even though she had been forced to marry Bart, her duty was to be loyal to him. It made no difference that he was growing more like his late father, oafish and bullying and promiscuous. There were no excuses for Margery: sin was sin.

She was embarrassed by the flush of desire that had overwhelmed her when Ned promised to visit New Castle. She vowed to treat him with careful courtesy, and no more warmth than any polite hostess would show a distinguished guest. She wished he would fall in love and marry someone else, and lose interest in her. Then perhaps they could think of one another calmly, as old flames that had sputtered out long ago.

The day before she had ordered the cook to kill and pluck a pair of fat geese, and in the morning she was heading for the kitchen to give instructions for the cooking when she saw a girl coming out of Bart’s room.

It was Nora Josephs, she saw, the youngest of the housemaids at fifteen. Her hair was untidy and she had evidently dressed in haste. She was not pretty, but she had the plump kind of young body that appealed to Bart.

They had had separate bedrooms for about five years now. Margery preferred it this way. Bart still came to her bed now and again, but less and less often. She knew that he had other women but, she told herself, she did not care, because she did not love him. All the same, she wished with all her heart that she could have had a different kind of marriage.

As far as she knew, none of his mistresses had ever become pregnant. However, Bart seemed never to question why. He did not have a very logical mind, and if he thought about it at all he probably told himself it was God’s will.

Margery was prepared to pretend she had not noticed, but young Nora gave her a saucy look, and that was a bad sign. Margery was not willing to be humiliated, and she decided she had better deal with Nora immediately. It was not the first time she had found herself in this situation, and she knew what to do. ‘Come with me, girl,’ she said in her most authoritative voice, and Nora did not dare to disobey. They went into Margery’s boudoir.

Margery sat down and left Nora standing. The girl looked scared now, so perhaps there was hope for her. ‘Listen to me carefully, because the whole of the rest of your life depends on how you behave now,’ Margery said. ‘Do you understand me?’

‘Yes, madam.’

‘If you choose, you may flaunt your relationship with the earl. You can touch him in front of the other servants. You can show off the gifts he gives you. You can even shame me by kissing him in my presence. Everyone in this house and half the people in the county of Shiring will know that you are the earl’s mistress. You will feel proud.’

She paused. Nora could not meet her eye.

‘But what will happen when he tires of you? I will throw you out, of course, and Bart won’t care. You will try to find work as a maid in another house, and then you’ll realize that no woman is going to take you on, because they’ll all think you’re going to seduce their husbands. And do you know where you’ll end up?’

She paused, and Nora whispered: ‘No, madam.’

‘In a waterfront brothel at Combe Harbour, sucking the cocks of ten sailors a night, and you’ll die of a horrible disease.’

Margery did not really know what went on in brothels, but she managed to sound as if she did, and Nora was fighting back tears.

Margery went on: ‘Or you can treat me with respect. If the earl takes you to his bed, leave him as soon as he falls asleep, and return to the servants’ quarters. Refuse to answer the questions the others ask you. In the daytime, don’t look at him or speak to him, and never touch him in front of me or anyone else. Then, when he tires of you, you will still have a place here, and your life will return to normal. Do you understand the choice in front of you?’

‘Yes, madam,’ Nora whispered.

‘Off you go.’ As Nora opened the door, Margery added bitterly: ‘And when you take a husband for yourself, pick one who is not like mine.’

Nora scurried away, and Margery went to see about the cooking of the geese.

Ned arrived at midday, wearing a costly black coat and a white lace collar – an outfit that was becoming the uniform for affluent Protestants, Margery had noticed. It looked a bit austere on Ned: she liked him in warm colours, green and gold.

Margery’s dog, Mick, licked Ned’s hand. Bart, too, welcomed Ned in a friendly way, getting out the best wine for the midday dinner. That was a relief. Perhaps Bart had forgotten that Margery had wanted to marry Ned. Or perhaps he did not care, because he had got her anyway. To men such as Bart, winning was all-important.

Bart was not a deep thinker, and he had never suspected Ned of planning the downfall and execution of Swithin. Bart had a different theory. He was convinced that Dan Cobley, the leader of the Puritans, had set the trap, as revenge on Sir Reginald and Rollo for the execution of his own father. And it was true that Dan still bore a poisonous grudge against Rollo.

Margery also felt nervous about Stephen Lincoln, who joined them at table. Ned would guess Stephen’s role in the earl’s household, but he would not say anything. The presence of priests in the homes of Catholic noblemen was universally known but never acknowledged. Margery usually frowned on hypocrisy: the orphan whose father was known but never named; the nuns who shared a passionate love that everyone pretended not to notice; the unmarried housekeeper who bore a series of children all resembling the priest who employed her. But in this case, the pretence worked in Margery’s favour.

However, she was not sure that Stephen would be as tactful as Ned. Stephen hated Queen Elizabeth, to whom Ned owed his entire career. And Ned had reason to hate the Catholic Church, which had punished his mother so cruelly for usury. It might be a tense dinner.

Bart said amiably: ‘So, Ned, you’re one of the queen’s most important advisors now, people tell me.’ There was only a touch of resentment in Bart’s tone. He thought the queen’s counsellors should be earls, not the sons of merchants; but he also knew in his heart that he could never give the queen guidance on the intricacies of European politics.

‘I work with Sir William Cecil, and have done for twelve years,’ Ned said. ‘He is the important one.’

‘But she has made you a knight, and now lord of Wigleigh.’

‘I’m very grateful to her majesty.’

An unaccustomed feeling crept over Margery, sitting at the table and watching Ned as he talked. He had a quick intelligence, and his eyes crinkled with humour frequently. She sipped wine and wished this dinner could go on forever.

Stephen Lincoln said: ‘What, exactly, do you do for Elizabeth, Sir Ned?’

‘I try to give her early warning of burgeoning problems.’

Margery thought this sounded pat, as if Ned had been asked the question many times and always trotted out the same answer.

Stephen gave a twisted grin. ‘Does that mean you spy on people who disagree with her?’

Margery groaned inwardly. Stephen was going to be combative and spoil the atmosphere.

Ned sat back and squared his shoulders. ‘She doesn’t care if people disagree with her, as long as they keep their views to themselves. I would have expected you to know that, Stephen, as Earl Bart regularly pays the fine of one shilling a week for not going to church.’

Bart said grumpily: ‘I go to the big events at Kingsbridge Cathedral.’

‘And very wise you are, if I may say so. But in Elizabeth’s England no one is tortured for their religion, and no one has been burned at the stake – a stark contrast with the reign of her predecessor, Queen Mary.’

Bart spoke again. ‘What about the Northern Rebellion?’

Margery knew what he was talking about. Just before Christmas a group of Catholic earls had taken up arms against Queen Elizabeth in the only rebellion of her reign so far. They had celebrated a Latin Mass in Durham Cathedral, occupied several other towns in the north, and marched towards Tutworth, where Mary Queen of Scots was imprisoned, with the evident intention of freeing her and proclaiming her queen of England. But the uprising had gained little support, the queen’s forces had put it down quickly, and Mary Stuart remained a prisoner.

Ned said: ‘It fizzled out.’

‘Five hundred men have been hanged!’ Bart said indignantly. ‘By the queen who complains of Mary Tudor’s cruelty!’

Ned said mildly: ‘Men who try to overthrow the monarch are generally executed, in every country in the world, I believe.’

Bart was a poor listener, like his father, and he responded as if he had not heard Ned. ‘The north is poor enough already, but it has been looted mercilessly, lands confiscated and all the livestock seized and driven south!’

Margery wondered whether this reminded Ned of how his own family had been mercilessly plundered by her father; but if he thought of that he hid his pain. He was not flustered by Bart’s tactless tirade, and Margery supposed that, spending his life among the queen’s advisors, Ned had learned how to remain calm during angry arguments. ‘I can tell you that the queen has not received much booty,’ he said in a reasonable tone of voice. ‘Certainly nothing approaching the cost to her of putting down the insurrection.’

‘The north is part of England – it should not be plundered like a foreign country.’

‘Then its people should behave like Englishmen, and obey their queen.’

Margery decided that this was a good moment to change the subject. ‘Ned, tell Bart about the problem in Wigleigh.’

‘It’s quickly stated, Bart. One of my tenant farmers has encroached on your land, and has cleared a couple of acres of forest on your side of the river.’

‘Then throw him off it,’ Bart said.

‘If you wish, I will simply tell him to stop using that land, of course.’

‘And if he disobeys?’

‘I’ll burn his crop.’

Margery knew that Ned was pretending to be harsh in order to reassure Bart.

Bart did not realize he was being manipulated. ‘It’s what he deserves,’ he said in a tone of satisfaction. ‘These peasants know the boundaries better than anyone: if he has encroached, he’s done so deliberately.’

‘I agree, but there might be a better solution,’ Ned said as if he hardly cared one way or the other. ‘After all, when peasants prosper, their landlords do too. Suppose I give you four acres of woodland somewhere else, in exchange for the two already cleared? That way, we both gain.’

Bart looked reluctant, but clearly could not think of a counterargument. However, he temporized. ‘Let’s pay a visit to Wigleigh together,’ he said. He was not good at abstract thinking, Margery knew: he would much prefer to make a decision while looking at the land in question.

Ned said: ‘Of course, I’d be glad to, especially if we can do so soon – I need to get back to London, now that my mother is buried.’

Margery felt a stab of disappointment, and realized she had been hoping that Ned would stay in Kingsbridge longer.

Bart said: ‘How about next Friday?’

Ned felt impatient, but suppressed the feeling: Margery could tell by his face, though probably no one else noticed. Clearly he would have preferred to settle this trivial matter right away so that he could get back to great affairs of state. He said: ‘Could you make it Monday?’

Bart looked annoyed, and Margery knew he was offended that he, an earl, should be asked to hurry up by a mere knight. ‘No, I’m afraid I can’t,’ he said mulishly.

‘Very well,’ said Ned. ‘Friday it is.’

*

I
N THE DAYS
following the funeral, Ned thought ahead to the time when he would meet his maker, and asked himself whether he would be proud of the life he had led. He had dedicated himself to a vision – one he shared with Queen Elizabeth – of an England where no one was killed for his religion. Could he say he had done everything possible to defend that ideal?

Perhaps the greatest danger was King Felipe of Spain. Felipe was constantly at war, often over religious differences. He fought the Ottoman Muslims in the Mediterranean Sea and the Dutch Protestants in the Netherlands. Sooner or later, Ned felt sure, he would turn his attention to England and the Anglican Church.

Other books

WINDOW OF TIME by DJ Erfert
What a Mother Knows by Leslie Lehr
Letters to a Young Scientist by Edward O. Wilson
Thunder Run by David Zucchino
Quantum by Jess Anastasi
Mistral's Daughter by Judith Krantz
Punktown: Shades of Grey by Thomas, Jeffrey, Thomas, Scott
The Red Thread by Dawn Farnham
La rueda de la vida by Elisabeth Kübler-Ross
Jack in the Box by Hania Allen