Read A Column of Fire Online

Authors: Ken Follett

A Column of Fire (93 page)

When Sir Ned Willard arrived, all that had to stop. No letters could be written, let alone encoded, for fear that he might walk in and see a revealing half-written document. Numerous letters had already been sealed in bottles and placed in an empty barrel, ready to be picked up by the dray from the Lion’s Head. Alison and Mary had a long discussion about what to do about them. They decided it might call attention to the barrel if they opened it to retrieve the bottles, so they left them as they were; but for the same reason they added no new ones.

Alison prayed that Ned would leave before the next delivery of beer. The man who called himself Jean Langlais had come up with the idea of hiding messages in barrels when he saw the beer being delivered; might not Ned think the same way, and just as quickly? Her prayer was not answered.

Alison and Mary were at a window, watching Ned in the courtyard, when the heavy cart arrived with three thirty-two-gallon barrels.

‘Go and talk to him,’ Mary said urgently. ‘Distract his attention.’

Alison hurried outside and approached Ned. ‘So, Sir Ned,’ she said conversationally, ‘are you satisfied with the security arrangements of Sir Amias Paulet?’

‘He’s a good deal more meticulous than the earl of Shrewsbury.’

Alison gave a tinkling laugh. ‘I’ll never forget you bursting in on us at breakfast at Sheffield Castle,’ she said. ‘You were like an avenging angel. Terrifying!’

Ned smiled, but Alison saw that it was a knowing smile. He knew she was flirting. He did not appear to mind, but she felt sure he did not believe her flattery.

She said: ‘It was the third time I’d met you, but I’d never before seen you like that. Why were you so angry, anyway?’

He did not answer her for a moment. He looked past her at the brewer’s men unloading the full barrels of beer from the dray and rolling them into Mary’s quarters. Alison’s heart was in her mouth: those barrels almost certainly contained incriminating secret messages from the enemies of Queen Elizabeth. All Ned had to do was stop the men, with his usual well-mannered determination, and demand that they open the barrels so that he could check the contents. Then the game would be up, and another conspirator would be tortured and executed.

But Ned did nothing. His attractive face showed no more emotion than it had when coal had been delivered. He returned his gaze to her and said: ‘May I answer you with a question?’

‘All right.’

‘Why are you here?’

‘What do you mean?’

‘Mary Stuart is a prisoner, but you’re not. You’re no threat to the crown of England. You don’t pretend to have a claim on the English throne. You have no powerful relatives at the court of the king of France. You don’t write letters to the Pope and the king of Spain. You could walk out of Chartley Manor and nobody would mind. Why do you stay?’

It was a question she sometimes asked herself. ‘Queen Mary and I were girls together,’ she said. ‘I’m a little older, and I used to look after her. Then she grew into a beautiful, alluring young woman, and I fell in love with her, in a way. When we returned to Scotland, I got married, but my husband died soon after the wedding. It just seemed to be my destiny to serve Queen Mary.’

‘I understand.’

‘Do you?’

Out of the corner of her eye, Alison saw the men come back out with the empties – including one containing secret letters in bottles – and load the barrels onto the cart. Once again, all Ned had to do was give the order and the barrels would have been opened, revealing their secret. But Ned made no move to speak to the draymen. ‘I understand,’ he said to Alison, continuing their conversation, ‘because I feel the same way about Queen Elizabeth. And that’s why I was so angry when I found that the earl of Shrewsbury was letting her down.’

The brewer’s men went into the kitchen for their dinner before setting off again. The crisis was over. Alison breathed easier.

Ned said: ‘And now it’s time for me to leave. I must get back to London. Goodbye, Lady Ross.’

Alison had not known he was about to leave. ‘Goodbye, Sir Ned,’ she said.

He went into the house.

Alison returned to Queen Mary. Together they watched through the window. Ned came out of the house with a pair of saddlebags presumably containing his few necessaries. He spoke to a groom, who brought out his horse.

He was gone before the deliverymen finished their dinner.

‘What a relief,’ said Queen Mary. ‘Thank God.’

‘Yes,’ said Alison. ‘We seem to have got away with it.’


go to London. He rode to Burton and took a room at the Lion’s Head.

When his horse was taken care of and his bags unpacked, he explored the inn. There was a bar opening on to the street. An arched vehicle entrance led to a courtyard with stables on one side and guest rooms on the other. At the back of the premises was a brewery, and a yeasty smell filled the air. It was a substantial business: the tavern was full of drinkers, travellers arrived and left, and drays were in and out of the yard constantly.

Ned noted that empty barrels from incoming drays were rolled to a corner where a boy removed the lids, cleaned the insides with water and a scrubbing brush, and stacked the barrels upside down to dry.

The owner was a big man whose belly suggested that he consumed plenty of what he brewed. Ned heard the men call him Hal. He was always on the move, going from the brewery to the stable, harrying his employees and shouting orders.

When Ned had the layout of the place in his head, he sat on a bench in the courtyard with a flagon of beer and waited. The yard was busy, and no one paid him any attention.

He was almost certain the messages were going in and out of Chartley Manor in beer barrels. He had been there for a week and had watched just about everything that went on, and this was the only possibility he could see. When the beer arrived he had been partly distracted by Alison. It could have been a coincidence that she chose to chat to him just at that moment. But Ned did not believe in coincidences.

He expected that the draymen would travel more slowly than he had coming from Chartley, for his horse was fresh and the carthorses tired. In the end it was early evening by the time the dray entered the courtyard of the Lion’s Head. Ned stayed where he was, watching. One of the men went away and came back with Hal while the others were unhitching the horses. Then they rolled the empty barrels over to the boy with the scrubbing brush.

Hal watched the boy remove the lids with a crowbar. He leaned against the wall and looked unconcerned. Perhaps he was. More likely, he had calculated that if he opened the barrels in secret his employees would know that he was up to something seriously criminal, whereas if he feigned nonchalance, they would assume it was nothing special.

When the lids came off, Hal looked into each barrel. Bending over one, he reached inside and brought out two bottle-shaped objects wrapped in rags and tied with string.

Ned allowed himself a satisfied sigh.

Hal nodded to the boy, then crossed the courtyard to a doorway he had not used before and went inside.

Ned followed rapidly.

The door led to a set of rooms that appeared to be the publican’s home. Ned walked through a sitting room into a bedroom. Hal stood at an open cupboard, obviously stashing the two items he had taken from the barrel. Hearing Ned’s step on the floorboards, he spun round and said angrily: ‘Get out of here, these are private rooms!’

Ned said quietly: ‘You are now as close as you have ever come to being hanged.’

Hal’s expression changed instantly. He went pale and his mouth dropped open. He was shocked and terrified. It was a startling transformation in a big, blustering fellow, and Ned deduced that Hal – unlike poor Peg Bradford – knew exactly what kind of crime he was committing. After a long hesitation he said in a frightened voice: ‘Who are you?’

‘I am the only man in the world who can save you from the gallows.’

‘Oh, God help me.’

‘He may, if you help me.’

‘What must I do?’

‘Tell me who comes to collect the bottles from Chartley, and brings you new ones to send there.’

‘I don’t know his name – honestly! I swear it!’

‘When will he next be here?’

‘I don’t know – he never gives warning, and his visits are irregular.’

They would be, Ned thought. The man is careful.

Hal moaned: ‘Oh, God, I’ve been such a fool.’

‘You certainly have. Why did you do it? Are you Catholic?’

‘I’m whatever religion I’m told to be.’

‘Greed for money, then.’

‘God forgive me.’

‘He has forgiven worse. Now listen to me. All you have to do is continue as you are. Give the courier the bottles, accept the new ones he brings, send them to Chartley, and bring back the replies, as you have been doing. Say nothing about me to anyone, anywhere.’

‘I don’t understand.’

‘You don’t need to understand. Just forget that you ever met me. Is that clear?’

‘Yes, and thank you for being merciful.’

You don’t deserve it, you money-grubbing traitor, Ned thought. He said: ‘I’m going to stay here until the courier comes, whenever that may be.’

He arrived two days later. Ned recognized him instantly.

It was Gilbert Gifford.


dangerous business, recruiting men to join a conspiracy to kill the queen. Rollo had to be very careful. If he picked the wrong man he could be in the deepest kind of trouble.

He had learned to watch for a certain look in the eyes. The look combined noble purpose with a high-minded disregard for consequences. It was not madness, but it was a kind of irrationality. Rollo sometimes wondered whether he had that look himself. He thought not: he was cautious to the point of obsession. Perhaps he had had it when young, but he must surely have lost it, for otherwise he would by now have been hung, drawn and quartered like Francis Throckmorton and all the other idealistic young Catholics Ned Willard had caught. In which case, he would by now have gone to heaven, like them; but a man was not permitted to choose the moment he made that journey.

Rollo thought that Anthony Babington had the look.

Rollo had been observing Babington for three weeks, but from a distance. He had not yet spoken. He had not even gone into the houses and taverns that Babington frequented, for he knew they would be watched by Ned Willard’s spies. He got close to Babington only in places that were not Catholic haunts, and among groups of people so large that one extra was not noticeable: in bowling alleys, at cockfights and bear-baiting, and in the audience at public executions. But he could not carry on taking precautions for ever. The time had come when he had to risk his neck.

Babington was a young man from a wealthy Derbyshire Catholic family that harboured one of Rollo’s secret priests. He had met Mary Stuart: as a boy Babington had been a page in the household of the earl of Shrewsbury, at the time when the earl was her jailer; and the boy had been captivated by the charm of the imprisoned queen. Was all that enough? There was only one way to find out for sure.

Rollo finally spoke to him at a bullfight.

It took place at Paris Gardens in Southwark, on the south side of the river. Entrance was a penny, but Babington paid twopence for a place in the gallery, removed from the jostling and smell of ordinary folk in the stalls.

The bull was tethered in a ring but otherwise unconstrained. Six big hunting dogs were led in and immediately flew at the bull, trying to bite its legs. The big bull was remarkably agile, turning its head on the muscular neck, fighting back with its horns. The dogs dodged, not always successfully. The lucky ones were simply thrown through the air; the unlucky ones impaled on a horn until shaken off. The smell of blood filled the atmosphere.

The audience yelled and screamed encouragement, and placed bets on whether the bull would kill all the dogs before succumbing to its wounds.

No one was looking anywhere but the ring.

Rollo began, as always, by letting his target know that he was a Catholic priest. ‘Bless you, my son,’ he said quietly to Babington, and when Babington gave him a startled look he flashed the gold cross.

Babington was shocked and enthused. ‘Who are you?’

‘Jean Langlais.’

‘What do you want with me?’

‘It is time for Mary Stuart.’

Babington’s eyes widened. ‘What do you mean?’

He knew perfectly well what was meant, Rollo thought. He went on: ‘The duke of Guise is ready with an army of sixty thousand men.’ That was an exaggeration – the duke was not ready, and he might never have sixty thousand – but Rollo needed to inspire confidence. ‘The duke has maps of all the major harbours on the south and east coasts where he may land his forces. He also has a list of loyal Catholic noblemen – including your stepfather – who can be counted upon to rally to the invaders and fight for the restoration of the true faith.’ That was accurate.

‘Can all this be true?’ Babington said, eager to believe it.

‘Only one thing is lacking, and we need a good man to supply the deficiency.’

‘Go on.’

‘A high-born Catholic whose faith is unquestionable must put together a group of similar friends and free Queen Mary from her prison at the moment of crisis. You, Anthony Babington, have been chosen to be that man.’

Rollo turned away from Babington, to give him a moment to digest all that. In the ring, the bull and the dead or dying dogs had been dragged away, and the climactic entertainment of the afternoon was beginning. Into the ring came an old horse with a monkey in the saddle. The crowd cheered: this was their favourite part. Six young dogs were released. They attacked and bit the horse, which tried desperately to escape their teeth; but they also leaped at the monkey, which seemed to tempt them more. The spectators roared with laughter as the monkey, maddened with fear, tried frantically to escape their bites, jumping from one end of the horse to the other, and even trying to stand on the horse’s head.

Rollo looked at Babington’s face. The entertainment was forgotten. Babington shone with pride, exhilaration and fear. Rollo could read his mind. He was twenty-three, and this was his moment of glory.

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