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‘You are laughing at me, Master Cromwell.’
‘Indeed not. But I want the best information, if you are leaving me to watch this situation for you.’
The cardinal talks then about killing. He talks about sin: about what’s to be expiated. He talks about the sixth King Henry, murdered in the Tower; of King Richard, born under Scorpio, the sign of secret dealings, tribulation and vice. At Bosworth, where the Scorpian died, bad choices were made; the Duke of Norfolk fought on the losing side, and his heirs were turned out of their dukedom. They had to work hard, long and hard, to get it back. So do you wonder, he says, why the Norfolk that is now shakes sometimes, if the king is in a temper? It’s because he thinks he will lose all he has, at an angry man’s whim.
The cardinal sees his man make a mental note; and he speaks of the loose rattling bones under the paving of the Tower, those bones bricked into staircases and mulched into the Thames mud. He talks about King Edward’s two vanished sons, the younger of them prone to stubborn resurrections that almost threw Henry Tudor out of his kingdom. He speaks of the coins the Pretender struck, stamped with their message to the Tudor king: ‘Your days are numbered. You are weighed in the balance: and found wanting.’
He speaks of the fear that was then, of the return of civil war. Katherine was contracted to be married into England, had been called ‘Princess of Wales’ since she was three years old; but before her family would let her embark from Corunna, they exacted a price in blood and bone. They asked Henry to turn his attention to the chief Plantagenet claimant, the nephew of King Edward and wicked King Richard, whom he had held in the Tower since he was a child of ten. To gentle pressure, King Henry capitulated; the White Rose, aged twenty-four, was taken out into God’s light and air, in order to have his head cut off. But there is always another White Rose; the Plantagenets breed, though not unsupervised. There will always be the need for more killing; one must, says the cardinal, have the stomach for it, I suppose, though I don’t know I ever have; I am always ill when there is an execution. I pray for them, these old dead people. I even pray for wicked King Richard sometimes, though Thomas More tells me he is burning in Hell.
Wolsey looks down at his own hands, twists the rings on his fingers. ‘I wonder,’ he murmurs. ‘Wonder which it is.’ Those who envy the cardinal say he has a ring which enables its owner to fly, and allows him to encompass the death of his enemies. It detects poisons, renders ferocious beasts harmless, ensures the favour of princes, and protects against drowning.
‘I suppose other people know, my lord. Because they have employed conjurers, to try to get it copied.’
‘If I knew, I’d get it copied myself. I’d give one to you.’
‘I picked up a snake once. In Italy.’
‘Why did you do that?’
‘For a bet.’
‘Was it poisonous?’
‘We didn’t know. That was the point of the bet.’
‘Did it bite you?’
‘Why of course?’
‘It wouldn’t be much of a story, would it? If I’d put it down unharmed, and away it slid?’
Unwillingly, the cardinal laughs. ‘What will I do without you,’ he says, ‘among the double-tongued French?’
In the house at Austin Friars, Liz is in bed but she stirs in her sleep. She half wakes, says his name and inches into his arms. He kisses her hair and says, ‘Our king’s grandfather married a serpent.’
Liz murmurs, ‘Am I awake or asleep?’ A heartbeat, and she slides away from him, and turns over, throwing out an arm; he wonders what she will dream. He lies awake, thinking. All that Edward did, his battles, his conquests, he did with Medici money behind him; their letters of credit were more important than signs and wonders. If King Edward was, as many people say, not the son of his father at all, not the son of the Duke of York; if King Edward’s mother, as some people do believe, had bred him from an honest English soldier, an archer called Blaybourne; then if Edward married a serpent woman, his offspring would be … Unreliable, is the word that comes to mind. If all the old stories are to be believed, and some people, let us remember, do believe them, then our king is one part bastard archer, one part hidden serpent, one part Welsh, and all of him in debt to the Italian banks … He too slides, drifts towards sleep. His accounting fails; the spectral world moves in, where pages of figures used to be. Try always, the cardinal says, to learn what people wear under their clothes, for it’s not just their skin. Turn the king inside out, and you will find his scaly ancestors: his warm, solid, serpentine flesh.
When in Italy he had picked up a snake for a bet, he had to hold it till they counted ten. They counted, rather slowly, in the slower languages: eins, zwei, drei … At four, the startled snake flicked its head and bit him. Between four and five he tightened his grip. Now some cried, ‘Blood of Christ, drop it!’ Some prayed and some swore, some just kept on counting. The snake looked sick; when they had all reached ten, and not before, he eased its coiled body gently to the ground, and let it slip away into its future.
There was no pain, but one could see clearly the puncture wound. On instinct, he tasted it, almost bit his own wrist. He noticed, surprised by it, the private, white, English flesh of his inner arm; he saw the narrow blue-green veins into which the snake had slipped the poison.
He collected his winnings. He waited to die, but he never did die. If anything, he got stronger, quick to hide and quick to strike. There was no Milanese quartermaster could out-bawl him, no bought-in Bernese capitaine who would not fall back before his grim reputation for blood first and bargaining later. Tonight is hot, it is July; he is asleep; he dreams. Somewhere in Italy, a snake has children. He calls his children Thomas; they carry in their heads pictures of the Thames, of muddy shallow banks beyond the reach of the tide, beyond the wash of the water.
Next morning when he wakes, Liz is still sleeping. The sheets are damp. She is warm and flushed, her face smooth like a young girl’s. He kisses her hairline. She tastes of salt. She murmurs, ‘Tell me when you are coming home.’
‘Liz, I’m not going,’ he says. ‘I’m not going with Wolsey.’ He leaves her. His barber comes to shave him. He sees his own eyes in a polished mirror. They look alive; serpent eyes. What a strange dream, he says to himself.
As he goes downstairs he thinks he sees Liz following him. He think he sees the flash of her white cap. He turns, and says, ‘Liz, go back to bed …’ But she’s not there. He is mistaken. He picks up his papers and goes to Gray’s Inn.
It is recess. The business is not legal; the discussion is of texts, and the whereabouts of Tyndale (somewhere in Germany), and the immediate problem is a fellow lawyer (so who shall say he should not be there, visiting Gray’s Inn?) called Thomas Bilney, who is a priest also, and a fellow of Trinity Hall. ‘Little Bilney’ he’s called, on account of his short stature and worm-like attributes; he sits twisting on a bench, and talking about his mission to lepers.
‘The scriptures, to me, are as honey,’ says Little Bilney, swivelling his meagre bottom, and kicking his shrunken legs. ‘I am drunk on the word of God.’
‘For Christ’s sake, man,’ he says. ‘Don’t think you can crawl out of your hole because the cardinal is away. Because now the Bishop of London has his hands free, not to mention our friend in Chelsea.’
‘Masses, fasting, vigils, pardons out of Purgatory … all useless,’ Bilney says. ‘This is revealed to me. All that remains, in effect, is to go to Rome and discuss it with His Holiness. I am sure he will come over to my way of thinking.’
‘You think your viewpoint is original, do you?’ he says gloomily. ‘Still, at that, it may be, Father Bilney. If you think the Pope would welcome your advice in these matters.’
He goes out, saying, there’s one who will jump into the fire, given an invitation. Masters, be careful there.
He doesn’t take Rafe to these meetings. He will not draw any member of his household into dangerous company. The Cromwell household is as orthodox as any in London, and as pious. They must be, he says, irreproachable.
The rest of the day is nothing to remember. He would have been home early, if he had not arranged to meet up in the German enclave, the Steelyard, with a man from Rostock, who brought along a friend from Stettin, who offered to teach him some Polish.
It’s worse than Welsh, he says at the end of the evening. I’ll need a lot of practice. Come to my house, he says. Give us notice and we’ll pickle some herring; otherwise, it’s pot-luck.
There’s something wrong when you arrive home at dusk but torches are burning. The air is sweet and you feel so well as you walk in, you feel young, unscarred. Then you see the dismayed faces; they turn away at the sight of you.
Mercy comes and stands before him, but here is no mercy. ‘Say it,’ he begs her.
She looks away when she says, I am so sorry.
He thinks it’s Gregory; he thinks his son is dead. Then he half knows, because where is Liz? He begs her, ‘Say it.’
‘We looked for you. We said, Rafe, go and see if he’s at Gray’s Inn, bring him back, but the gatekeepers denied they’d seen you the whole day. Rafe said, trust me, I’ll find him, if I go over the whole city: but not a sign of you.’
He remembers the morning: the damp sheets, her damp forehead. Liz, he thinks, didn’t you fight? If I had seen your death coming, I would have taken him and beaten in his death’s head; I would have crucified him against the wall.
The little girls are still up, though someone has put them into their nightdresses, as if it were any ordinary night. Their legs and feet are bare and their nightcaps, round lace bonnets made by their mother, are knotted under their chins with a resolute hand. Anne’s face is like a stone. She has Grace’s hand tucked in her fist. Grace looks up at him, dubious. She almost never sees him; why is he here? But she trusts him and lets him lift her, without protest, into his arms. Against his shoulder she tumbles at once into sleep, her arms flung around his neck, the crown of her head tucked beneath his chin. ‘Now, Anne,’ he says, ‘we must take Grace to bed, because she is little. I know you are not ready to sleep yet, but you must go in beside her, because she may wake and feel cold.’
‘I may feel cold,’ Anne says.
Mercy walks before him to the children’s room. Grace is put down without waking. Anne cries, but she cries in silence. I’ll sit with them, Mercy says: but he says, ‘I will.’ He waits until Anne’s tears stop flowing, and her hand slackens in his.
These things happen; but not to us.
‘Now let me see Liz,’ he says.
The room – which this morning was only their bedroom – is lively with the scent of the herbs they are burning against contagion. They have lit candles at her head and feet. They have bound up her jaw with linen, so already she does not look like herself. She looks like the dead; she looks fearless, and as if she could judge you; she looks flatter and deader than people he has seen on battlefields, with their guts spilled.
He goes down, to get an account of her deathbed; to deal with the household. At ten this morning, Mercy said, she sat down: Jesu, I am so weary. In the middle of the day’s business. Not like me, is it? she’d said. I said, it’s not like you, Liz. I put my hand to her forehead, and I said, Liz, my darling … I told her, lie down, get to bed with you, you have to sweat this out. She said, no, give me a few minutes, I’m dizzy, perhaps I need to eat a little something, but we sat down at the table and she pushed her food away …
He would like her to shorten her account, but he understands her need to tell it over, moment by moment, to say it out loud. It is like a package of words she is making, to hand to him: this is yours now.
At midday Elizabeth lay down. She was shivering, though her skin burned. She said, is Rafe in the house? Tell him to go and find Thomas. And Rafe did go, and any number of people went, and they didn’t find you.
At half past twelve, she said, tell Thomas to look after the children. And then what? She complained her head ached. But nothing to me, no message? No; she said she was thirsty. Nothing more. But then Liz, she never did say much.
At one o’clock, she called for a priest. At two, she made her confession. She said she had once picked up a snake, in Italy. The priest said it was the fever speaking. He gave her absolution. And he could not wait, Mercy said, he could not wait to get out of the house, he was so afraid he might take the contagion and die.
At three in the afternoon, she declined. At four, she put off the burden of this life.
I suppose, he says, she will want to be buried with her first husband.
Why should you think that?
Because I came more lately. He walks away. There is no point in writing the usual directions about mourning clothes, beadsmen, candles. Like all the others touched by this sickness, Liz must be buried quickly. He will not be able to send for Gregory or call the family together. The rule is for the household to hang a bunch of straw outside the door as sign of infection, and then restrict entry for forty days, and go abroad as little as possible.
Mercy comes in and says, a fever, it could be any fever, we don’t have to admit to the sweat … If we all stayed at home, London would come to a standstill.
‘No,’ he says. ‘We must do it. My lord cardinal made these rules and it would not be proper for me to scant them.’
Mercy says, where were you anyway? He looks into her face; he says, you know Little Bilney? I was with him; I warned him, I said he will jump into the fire.
And later? Later I was learning Polish.
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