Read A Column of Fire Online

Authors: Ken Follett

A Column of Fire (68 page)

Bart seemed oblivious. It would never occur to him that his wife might be unfaithful, any more than he would expect his own dog to bite him. Margery’s mother, Lady Jane, probably had her suspicions, but would not say anything for fear of causing trouble. However, Margery knew she and Ned could not get away with this behaviour indefinitely. It might take a week or a year, but sooner or later they would be found out. Nevertheless, she could not stop.

She was happy, but at the same time tortured by guilt. Often she thought back to where she had gone wrong. It had been the moment when she ordered her lady-in-waiting and man-at-arms to walk back to Wigleigh for food. She must have known, in her heart, that she was going to lie with Ned among the wild flowers beside the stream; and the prospect had been too sweet to resist. She had seen the steep and thorny way to heaven, but had chosen the primrose path of dalliance. She was committing a sin, enjoying it, and repeating it. Every day she vowed to end it, and every time she saw Ned her resolution evaporated.

She was afraid of the consequences, both now and in the afterlife. God would surely punish her. He might afflict her with a terrible disease, or drive her mad, or strike her blind. She sometimes gave herself a headache thinking about it. And she had additional reasons for fear. Her foreboding about the effects of the Papal Bull had turned out to be tragically accurate. Puritans could now gleefully point to Catholics as a danger to national security. Intolerance had gained a pretext.

Bart now had to pay the large sum of a pound a week, instead of a shilling a week, for not going to church. A pound was the price of a musket, a fancy shirt or a small pony. It made a dent in Bart’s income from rents, which came to about fifty pounds a week. The parish churchwarden was naturally afraid of the earl, but summoned up the courage once a week to come to the castle and ask for the money, and Bart had to pay.

Much worse was the effect on Rollo. He had lost his business because he would not swear to the Thirty-Nine Articles. He had been forced to sell Priory Gate, and Dan Cobley had exultantly bought it. Lady Jane was now living at New Castle with Margery and Bart. Rollo himself had gone away, and even his mother did not know where.

Ned was incandescent with rage. Queen Elizabeth had risked everything for the ideal of religious freedom, and had maintained it for a decade, proving that it could be done; but now, he fumed, she was being undermined – by the Pope, of all people. Margery did not like to hear him criticizing the Pope, even though she secretly agreed with him, so she just tried to avoid the topic.

In fact, she avoided all serious thoughts as much as she could, and let her mind dwell on love. When she was not with Ned, she daydreamed about the next time they would meet, and what they would do. Now, as her imagination began to depict them together, and she heard, in the ear of fantasy, the intimate words he would murmur to her as he touched her, she felt the familiar sensation in her loins, and her hand drifted to the place between her legs where delight arose. Strangely, her meetings with Ned did not quench this desire: in fact, she did it more now, as if one sin fed the other.

Her dog, Mick, lying beside the bed, woke up and growled. ‘Hush,’ she murmured, but then he barked. A moment later, there was a hammering at the door of the house.

The sound itself told Margery that trouble had arrived. The knocking was loud, repeated, demanding, authoritative. Few people dared to knock on an earl’s door in that aggressive, arrogant manner. She jumped out of bed and ran to the window. Outside she saw Sheriff Matthewson with a group of nine or ten men.

She could not guess exactly what the sheriff wanted, but she had no doubt it had to do with religion.

She ran from the room, pulling a wrapper over her nightdress. Along the corridor, Bart looked out of his room. ‘What is it?’ he said thickly.

‘Don’t open the door,’ Margery said.

The knocking continued.

Margery hurried across the landing to Stephen Lincoln’s room. She burst in: there was no time for niceties. But he was up and dressed and kneeling at his prie-dieu. ‘The sheriff is at the door,’ she said. ‘Come with me. Bring the sacramentals.’

Stephen picked up a box containing all they needed for the Mass and followed Margery out.

She saw Bartlet, in his nightshirt, followed by a sleepy young nurse. ‘Go back to your room, Barty,’ she said. ‘I’ll come for you when breakfast is ready.’ She ran down the stairs, praying that the servants had not already let Matthewson in. She was almost too late: young Nora Josephs was in the act of unbarring the door, shouting: ‘All right! All right! I’m coming!’

‘Wait!’ Margery hissed.

All the servants were Catholic. They would understand what was happening and keep silent about what they knew.

With Stephen close behind, Margery ran along the corridor and through a storeroom to a spiral staircase. She went up the stairs and then down a shorter flight into a dead-end passageway that was the bakery of the old castle, now disused. She pulled open the iron door to the massive bread oven where she had kissed Ned all those years ago. ‘In here!’ she said to Stephen. ‘Hide!’

‘Won’t they look here?’

‘Go all the way to the back and push against the wall. It leads to a secret room. Quickly!’

Stephen climbed inside with his box, and Margery shut the door.

Breathing hard, she retraced her steps to the front hall. Her mother was there, hair in a nightcap, looking worried. Margery pulled the wrapper more closely around her, then nodded to Nora. ‘Now you can open up.’

Nora opened the door.

Margery said brightly: ‘Good morning, Sheriff. How hard you knocked! Are you in a hurry?’

Matthewson was a big man who had a brusque way with malefactors, but he was uneasy confronting a countess. He tipped up his chin defiantly and said in a loud voice: ‘Her majesty the queen has ordered the arrest of the Catholic priest Stephen Lincoln, suspected of treasonously conspiring with the Queen of the Scots.’

The charge was ridiculous. Stephen had never met Mary Queen of Scots, and anyway he would not have the nerve for a conspiracy. The accusation was malicious, and Margery suspected that Dan Cobley was behind it. But she smiled and said: ‘Then you needn’t have woken us up so early. Stephen is not a priest, nor is he here.’

‘He lives here!’

‘He was the earl’s clerk, but he has left.’ Improvising desperately, she added: ‘I think he may have gone to Canterbury.’ That was enough detail, she decided. ‘Anyway, I’m quite sure he has never had anything to do with the Queen of the Scots. I’m sorry you’ve had a wasted journey. But now that you’re here, would you and your men like some breakfast?’

‘No, thank you.’ He turned to his men. ‘Search the house.’

Margery heard Bart say: ‘Oh, no, you don’t.’ She turned to see him coming down the stairs. He was wearing his sword as well as his breeches and boots. ‘What the devil do you think you’re up to, Matthewson?’

‘Carrying out orders from the queen, my lord, and I hope you won’t offend her majesty by obstructing me.’

Margery stood between Bart and the sheriff and spoke in a low voice. ‘Don’t fight him. Don’t be executed like your father. Let him search the house. He won’t find anything.’

‘To hell with that.’

The sheriff said: ‘You’re suspected of harbouring a Catholic priest called Stephen Lincoln who is a traitor. It will be better for you to give him up now.’

In a louder voice, Margery said to Bart: ‘I’ve already explained that Stephen is not a priest and is no longer here.’

Bart looked mystified. He stepped closer to Margery and whispered: ‘But what about—’

‘Trust me!’ she hissed.

Bart shut up.

Margery raised her voice again. ‘Perhaps we should allow the sheriff to satisfy himself that we’re telling the truth. Then everyone will be content.’

Enlightenment dawned on Bart. He mouthed: ‘In the old oven?’

Margery said: ‘Yes, that’s what I think, let him search.’

Bart looked at Matthewson. ‘All right, but I won’t forget this – especially your part in it.’

‘It’s not my decision, my lord, as you know.’

Bart grunted contemptuously.

‘Get going, men,’ said the sheriff. ‘Pay special attention to the remains of the old castle – it’s sure to be full of hiding places.’ He was no fool.

Margery said to Nora: ‘Serve breakfast in the dining room – just for the family, no one else.’ There was now no point in pretending to be hospitable.

Bart went with ill temper to the dining room, and Lady Jane followed, but Margery could not summon enough sang-froid to sit and eat while the men looked for Stephen, so she followed the sheriff around the house.

Although his men searched the halls and parlours of the new house, he was more interested in the old castle, and carried a lantern to light dark places. He examined the church first. The tomb of a forgotten ancestor caught his eye, and he grasped the effigy of the knight on top and tried to move it, to test whether it might have been opened. It was firm.

The bakery was almost the last place he tried. He opened the iron door and shone his lamp inside, and Margery held her breath and pretended insouciance. He leaned forward, head and shoulders in the oven, and waved the lamp around. Was the door at the back as invisible as Margery remembered? Matthewson grunted, but she could not interpret the sound.

Then he withdrew and slammed the door.

Margery said gaily: ‘Did you think we might keep priests in the oven?’ Then she hoped he had not noticed the slight tremor in her voice.

He looked annoyed and did not trouble to answer her facetious question.

They returned to the entrance hall. Matthewson was angry. He suspected he had been hoodwinked but he could not figure out how.

Just as he was about to leave, the front door opened and Sir Ned Willard walked in.

She stared at him in horror. He knew the secret of the old bakery. Why was he here?

There was a light film of perspiration on his forehead, and he was breathing heavily: clearly he had been riding hard. She guessed that somehow he had heard about the sheriff’s mission. But what was his purpose? No doubt he was worried about Margery. But he was a Protestant, too: would he be tempted to flush out the fugitive priest? His loyalty to Queen Elizabeth was profound, almost like love: would it be outweighed by his love for Margery?

He gave Matthewson a hostile glare. ‘What’s going on here?’ he said.

The sheriff repeated his explanation. ‘Stephen Lincoln is suspected of treason.’

‘I haven’t heard of any such suspicion,’ Ned said.

‘As I understand it, Sir Ned, you haven’t been in London since before Easter, so perhaps you haven’t heard.’ The sheriff’s words were polite, but he said them with a sneer.

Ned felt foolish, Margery could tell by his face. He prided himself on knowing everything first. He had slipped – and undoubtedly it was because of her.

Margery said: ‘Stephen Lincoln is not here. The sheriff has searched my house very thoroughly. If we’d had a Catholic mouse in the pantry I believe he would have found it.’

‘I’m glad to hear the queen’s orders are being carried out so meticulously,’ Ned said, apparently changing sides. ‘Well done, sheriff.’

Margery felt so tense she wanted to scream. Was Ned about to say
But did you find the secret room behind the old oven?
Controlling her voice with an effort she said: ‘If that’s all, sheriff . . .’

Matthewson hesitated, but he had nothing left to do. Looking like thunder, he walked away, rudely without saying farewell.

One by one his men followed him through the door.

Bart came out of the dining room. ‘Have they gone?’ he said.

Margery could not speak. She burst into tears.

Bart put his arms around her. ‘There, there,’ he said. ‘You were magnificent.’

She looked over his shoulder at Ned, who wore the face of a man in torment.


to have his revenge.

He was weary, dusty, and seething with hatred and resentment when he arrived at the university town of Douai, in the French-speaking south-west of the Netherlands, in July of 1570. It reminded him of Oxford, where he had studied: there were many churches, gracious college buildings, and gardens and orchards where teachers and students could walk and talk. That had been a golden age, he thought bitterly; his father had been alive and prosperous, a strong Catholic had sat on the throne of England, and Rollo had seemed to have an assured future.

He had walked a long way across the flat landscape of Flanders, but his feet were not as sore as his heart. The Protestants were never satisfied, he thought furiously. England had a Protestant queen, compliant bishops, an English Bible and a reformed prayer book. The paintings had been taken down, the statues beheaded, the golden crucifixes melted down. And still it was not enough. They had to take away Rollo’s business and his home, and drive him out of his own country.

One day they would regret it.

Speaking a mixture of French and English, he found his way to a brick town house, large but not beautiful, in a street of shops and tenements. All his hopes were now invested in this disappointingly ordinary building. If England was to return to the true faith, and if Rollo was to be revenged on his enemies, it would all start here.

The door was open.

In the hall he met a lively pink-faced man about ten years his junior – Rollo was thirty-five. ‘Bonjour, monsieur,’ he said politely.

‘You’re English, aren’t you?’ said the other man.

‘Is this the English College?’

‘It certainly is.’

‘Thank God.’ Rollo was relieved. It had been a long journey, but he had arrived. Now he had to find out whether it would live up to his hopes.

‘I’m Leonard Price. Call me Lenny. What are you doing here?’

‘I lost my livelihood in Kingsbridge because I wouldn’t sign the Thirty-Nine Articles.’

‘Good man!’

‘Thank you. I’d like to help restore the true faith in England, and I’ve been told that’s your mission here.’

‘Right again. We train priests then send them back home – clandestinely, of course – to bring the sacraments to loyal Catholics there.’

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