Read A Column of Fire Online

Authors: Ken Follett

A Column of Fire (67 page)

‘Just beyond here is the patch I’m offering Bart in exchange,’ Ned said.

Margery saw a place where the ground on the Wigleigh side was forested. They rode across the stream, then dismounted and walked the horses into the wood. Margery noted some mature oaks that would provide valuable timber. They stopped at a pretty clearing with wild flowers and a grassy bank beside the stream. ‘I can’t see why Bart would object to the exchange,’ Margery said. ‘In fact, I think we’ll be getting a bargain.’

‘Good,’ said Ned. ‘Shall we rest here a while?’

The prospect was delightful. ‘Yes, please,’ she said.

They tethered the horses where they could crop some grass.

Ned said: ‘We could send your people to the tavern for food and drink.’

‘Good idea.’ Margery turned to the man-at-arms and the lady-in-waiting. ‘You two, go back to the village. You can walk – the horses need a rest. Fetch a jug of ale and some cold ham and bread. And enough for yourselves, of course.’

The two servants disappeared into the woods.

Margery sat on the grass by the stream and Ned lay beside her. The wood was quiet: there was just the shush of the stream and the breath of a light breeze in the spring leaves. Mick lay down and closed his eyes, but he would wake and give warning if anyone approached.

Margery said: ‘Ned, I know what you did for Father Paul.’

Ned raised his eyebrows. ‘News travels fast.’

‘I want to thank you.’

‘I suppose you supply the sacramental wafers.’ She was not sure what to say to that, but Ned quickly added: ‘I don’t want to know the details, please forget I asked.’

‘Just as long as you know that I would never conspire against Queen Elizabeth.’ Margery wanted him to understand that. ‘She is our anointed ruler. I may wonder why God in his wisdom chose to set a heretic on the throne, but it is not for me to challenge his choice.’

Ned, still lying down, looked up at her and smiled. ‘I’m very glad to hear it.’ He touched her arm.

She stared at his kind, clever face. What she saw in his eyes was a yearning so strong it might have broken her heart. No one else had ever felt like this about her, she knew. At that moment it seemed that the only possible sin would be to reject his passion. She lowered her head and kissed his lips.

She closed her eyes and gave herself up to the love that possessed her, filling her soul as the blood filled her body. She had thought about this ever since the last time they had kissed, though now, after such a long wait, it was even sweeter. She sucked his lower lip into her mouth, then teased his upper lip with the tip of her tongue, then pushed her tongue into his mouth. She could not get enough of him.

He grasped her shoulders and pulled her down until she was lying on top of him, putting all her weight on him. She could feel his erection through her petticoats. She worried that she might be hurting him, and moved to roll off, but he held her in place. She relaxed into the feeling of being so close that they might melt into one another. There seemed nothing in the world except him and her, nothing outside their two bodies.

Even this did not satisfy her for long: everything they did made her want more. She knelt up, straddling Ned’s knees, and opened the front of his breeches to free his penis. She stared at it, stroking it lovingly. It was pale and slightly curved, springing from a tangle of curly auburn hair. She bent over and kissed it, and heard him gasp with pleasure. A tiny drop of fluid appeared at the end. Unable to resist the temptation, she licked it off.

She could wait no longer. She moved to straddle his hips, tenting the skirt of her dress over the middle of his body, then sank down, guiding his penis inside her. She was impossibly wet, and it slipped in effortlessly. She bent forward so that she could kiss him again. They rocked gently for a long time, and she wanted to do it for ever.

Then he was the one who wanted more. He rolled her over, without withdrawing. She spread her legs wide and lifted her knees. She wanted him deeper inside her, filling her up. She felt him losing control. She looked into his eyes and said: ‘It’s you, Ned, it’s you.’ She felt the jerking spasm and the rush of fluid, and that drove her over the edge, and she felt happy, truly happy, for the first time in years.

*

R
OLLO
F
ITZGERALD
would have died rather than change his religion. For him there was no room for compromise. The Catholic Church was right and all rivals were wrong. It was obvious, and God would not forgive men who ignored the obvious. A man held his soul in his hand like a pearl, and if he were to drop that pearl in the ocean he would never get it back.

He could hardly believe that Elizabeth Tudor had lasted twelve years as the illegitimate queen of England. She had given people a measure of religious freedom and, amazingly, her religious settlement had not yet collapsed. The Catholic earls had failed to overthrow her and all the monarchs of Europe had hesitated while she pretended she might marry a good Catholic. It was a terrible disappointment. Rollo would have believed that God was asleep, were it not a blasphemous thing to say.

Then, in May of 1570, everything changed, not just for Rollo but for everyone in England.

Rollo got the news at breakfast in Priory Gate. Margery was at the table. She was paying an extended visit to Kingsbridge to look after their mother, Lady Jane, who had been ill. Mother had recovered somewhat and was now at breakfast with them, but Margery seemed in no hurry to go home. The maid Peggy came in and handed Rollo a letter, saying a courier had brought it from London. It was a large piece of heavy paper, folded corners-to-middle and closed with a blob of red wax impressed with the Fitzgerald seal. The handwriting was that of Davy Miller, the family’s man of business in London.

Davy’s letters were normally about the price of wool, but this one was different. The Pope had made a formal announcement, called a Papal Bull. Such messages were not circulated in England, of course. Rollo had heard rumours about it, but now, according to Davy, someone had daringly nailed a copy to the gate of the bishop of London’s palace, so everyone knew what was in it. Rollo gasped when he read Davy’s summary.

Pope Pius V had excommunicated Queen Elizabeth.

‘This is good news!’ Rollo said. ‘The Pope describes Elizabeth as “the pretended queen of England and the servant of crime”. At last!’

‘Elizabeth must be furious,’ Margery said. ‘I wonder if Ned Willard knows about this.’

Lady Jane said darkly: ‘Ned Willard knows everything.’

‘It gets better,’ Rollo said jubilantly. ‘Englishmen are released from their allegiance to Elizabeth, even if they have sworn oaths.’

Margery frowned. ‘I’m not sure you should be so pleased,’ she said. ‘This means trouble.’

‘But it’s true! Elizabeth is a heretic and an illegitimate queen. No one should obey her.’

Lady Jane said: ‘Your sister’s right, Rollo. This may not be good news for us.’

Rollo carried on reading. ‘In fact, people are commanded
not
to obey her, and anyone who does obey is included in the sentence of excommunication.’

Margery said: ‘This is a catastrophe!’

Rollo did not understand them. ‘It needs to be said, and the Pope is saying it at last! How can this be bad news?’

‘Don’t you see what it means, Rollo?’ said Margery. ‘The Pope has turned every English Catholic into a traitor!’

‘He’s only making plain what everyone knows.’

‘Sometimes it’s better not to say what everyone knows.’

‘How is that possible?’

‘Everyone knows that Father Paul celebrates Mass for us, and Stephen Lincoln too, and all the other secret priests – but no one says it. That’s the only reason we get away with it. Now it’s under threat. We’re all potential traitors.’

Rollo saw what they meant, but they were wrong. People were stupid and freedom was dizzyingly perilous. Men had to fight against Elizabeth’s heresy, even if it made life uncomfortable or even dangerous. ‘You women don’t understand politics,’ he said.

Margery’s son, Bartlet, came into the room. Rollo looked at the boy with pride. Bartlet was his nephew, and would one day be the earl of Shiring.

‘Can we play with the kittens today?’ Bartlet said.

‘Of course, my darling,’ said Margery. She explained: ‘Ned’s tortoiseshell cat has had kittens, and Bartlet’s fascinated by them.’

Lady Jane said: ‘I wouldn’t stay too long at the Willard house, if I were you.’

Rollo wondered why his mother’s tone was so frosty, then he recalled the struggle to make Margery marry Bart rather than Ned. That was ancient history, but perhaps Lady Jane feared people would think Margery had an ulterior motive in going to Ned’s house.

Perhaps she did.

Rollo dismissed the thought: he had more important things on his mind. ‘I’ve got to go to a meeting of the borough council,’ he said. ‘I’ll see you all at dinner.’ He kissed his mother and went out.

Kingsbridge was ruled by a council of twelve aldermen, all local merchants, chaired by the Mayor. Rollo had taken his father’s place as an alderman when he inherited the family’s wool business, but the current mayor was Elijah Cordwainer, a crony of Dan Cobley’s. The council met in the Guild Hall, as they had for hundreds of years.

Rollo walked up the main street to the crossroads, went into the Guild Hall, and climbed the stairs to the council chamber, conscious that he was about to take part in a venerable tradition. The room was panelled in smoke-blackened wood. Leather chairs were arranged around a conference table that was scored with ancient graffiti. On a sideboard was a round of beef and a jug of ale, for anyone who had not had time for breakfast.

Rollo took his place. He was the only Catholic in the room: none of the other aldermen had ever appeared at one of Father Paul’s clandestine services. Rollo felt vaguely intimidated, as if he was a spy among enemies. He had not felt this way before, and he wondered if that was because of the Papal Bull. Perhaps Margery was right. He hoped not.

The council regulated commerce and industry in the city, and the morning’s business was about weights and measures, wages and prices, masters and apprentices. It was reported that some visiting tradesmen at the market were using the banned Tower Pound, which was lighter than the approved Troy Pound. They discussed a rumour that Queen Elizabeth might standardize a mile at 5,280 feet instead of 5,000. They were about to break up for midday dinner when Mayor Cordwainer announced a last-minute addition to the agenda: the Papal Bull.

Rollo was puzzled. The council never discussed religion. What was this about?

Cordwainer said: ‘Unfortunately, the Pope in Rome has seen fit to order Englishmen not to obey her majesty Queen Elizabeth.’

Rollo said irritably: ‘What has that to do with this council?’

Cordwainer looked uncomfortable and said: ‘Well, er, Alderman Cobley feels it may raise questions . . .’

So Dan Cobley was up to something, Rollo thought. That made him anxious. Dan still blamed him for the execution of Philbert, and lusted for vengeance.

Everyone looked at Dan.

‘It would be a bad thing if the shadow of treason were to fall on the borough of Kingsbridge,’ Dan said, clearly making a rehearsed speech. ‘I’m sure you all agree.’

There was a mutter of agreement around the table. Margery had said at breakfast that the Bull made traitors of all Catholics, and Rollo now felt a dark foreboding.

‘To avoid all suspicion,’ Dan went on, ‘I have a simple suggestion: all Kingsbridge merchants should swear to the Thirty-Nine Articles.’

The room fell silent. Everyone knew what this meant. It was a direct attack on Rollo. The Thirty-Nine Articles defined the doctrine of the Anglican Church. Any Catholic who accepted them would be betraying his faith. Rollo would die rather than take such an oath.

And everyone in the room knew that.

Not all Kingsbridge Protestants were as hard-line as Dan. Most of them wanted nothing more than to do business in peace. But Dan could be slyly persuasive.

Paul Tinsley, the lawyer who was clerk of the peace for the town, said: ‘There have been several attempts by Parliament to make all public officials take an oath affirming the Articles, but Queen Elizabeth has always refused to ratify any such legislation.’

Dan said: ‘She won’t refuse next time it comes up – not after this Bull. She’s going to have to clamp down.’

‘Perhaps,’ said Tinsley. ‘But we could wait until Parliament makes a decision, rather than take the matter into our own hands.’

‘Why wait?’ said Dan. ‘Surely there is no one in this room who denies the truth of the Articles? And if there is, should he be allowed to trade in Kingsbridge after this Papal Bull?’

Tinsley persisted in his mild tone of voice. ‘You may well be right, Alderman Cobley. I’m suggesting merely that we should not act in haste.’

Rollo spoke up. ‘Alderman Tinsley is right. I for one will not sign a religious declaration put in front of me by Alderman Cobley.’ Untruthfully he added: ‘If her majesty the queen should ask for it, that would be a different matter.’ It would not, but Rollo was desperate: his livelihood was at stake.

Dan said: ‘What if word got around that we have had this discussion and decided not to act? Won’t that put
us
under suspicion?’

Around the table there were several reluctant nods, and Rollo began to think Dan would get his way.

Cordwainer said: ‘I think we must take a vote. Those in favour of Alderman Cobley’s proposal, please raise your hands.’

Ten hands went up. Only Rollo and Tinsley were against.

Cordwainer said: ‘The resolution is passed.’

Rollo stood up and left the room.

*

M
ARGERY LAY
in bed at New Castle early on a July morning, listening to the birds. She felt happy, guilty and scared.

She was happy because she loved Ned and he loved her. He had stayed in Kingsbridge all through May, and they had met several times a week. Then he had been ordered to report on south-coast defences. It was Margery’s normal practice to go with Stephen Lincoln at least once a week to celebrate Mass clandestinely in remote villages and suburban barns, and she and Ned contrived to make their paths cross. They would manage to spend a night in the same town, or nearby villages. After dark, when most people had gone to bed, they would rendezvous. If she was staying in a tavern, Ned would creep into her room. On warm nights they sometimes met in woods. The secrecy made their meetings almost unbearably thrilling. Right now he was only a few miles from New Castle, and she was hoping to slip away on some pretext and see him today. She lived in a state of continuous excitement that made it almost impossible for her to eat. She lived on wheat bread with butter and watered wine.

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