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He says to Wriothesley, ‘Is he? At all points orthodox?’
‘It’s hard to say. He doesn’t like monks. You should get on.’
‘Was he liked at Jesus College?’
‘They say he was a severe examiner.’
‘I suppose he doesn’t miss much. Although. He thinks Anne is a virtuous lady.’ He sighs. ‘And what do we think?’
Call-Me-Risley snorts. He has just married – a connection of Gardiner’s – but his relations with women are not, on the whole, gentle.
‘He seems a melancholy sort of man,’ he says. ‘The kind who wants to live retired from the world.’
Wriothesley’s fair eyebrows rise, almost imperceptibly. ‘Did he tell you about the barmaid?’
When Cranmer comes to the house, he feeds him the delicate meat of the roe deer; they take supper privately, and he gets his story from him, slowly, slowly and easily. He asks the doctor where he comes from, and when he says, nowhere you know, he says, try me, I’ve been to most places.
‘If you had been to Aslockton, you wouldn’t know you were there. If a man goes fifteen miles to Nottingham, let him only spend the night away, and it vanishes clear from his mind.’ His village has not even a church; only some poor cottages and his father’s house, where his family has lived for three generations.
‘Your father is a gentleman?’
‘He is indeed.’ Cranmer sounds faintly shocked: what else could he be? ‘The Tamworths of Lincolnshire are among my connections. The Cliftons of Clifton. The Molyneux family, of whom you will have heard. Or have you?’
‘And you have much land?’
‘If I had thought, I would have brought the ledgers.’
‘Forgive me. We men of business …’
Eyes rest on him, assessing. Cranmer nods. ‘A small acreage. And I am not the eldest. But he brought me up well. Taught me horsemanship. He gave me my first bow. He gave me my first hawk to train.’
Dead, he thinks, the father long dead: still looking for his hand in the dark.
‘When I was twelve he sent me to school. I suffered there. The master was harsh.’
‘To you? Or others as well?’
‘If I am honest, I only thought of myself. I was weak, no doubt. I suppose he sought out weakness. Schoolmasters do.’
‘Could you not complain to your father?’
‘I wonder now why I did not. But then he died. I was thirteen. Another year and my mother sent me to Cambridge. I was glad of the escape. To be from under his rod. Not that the flame of learning burnt bright. The east wind put it out. Oxford – Magdalen especially, where your cardinal was – it was everything in those days.’
He thinks, if you were born in Putney, you saw the river every day, and imagined it widening out to the sea. Even if you had never seen the ocean you had a picture of it in your head from what you had been told by foreign people who sometimes came upriver. You knew that one day you would go out into a world of marble pavements and peacocks, of hillsides buzzing with heat, the fragrance of crushed herbs rising around you as you walked. You planned for what your journeys would bring you: the touch of warm terracotta, the night sky of another climate, alien flowers, the stone-eyed gaze of other people’s saints. But if you were born in Aslockton, in flat fields under a wide sky, you might just be able to imagine Cambridge: no further.
‘A man from my college,’ Dr Cranmer says tentatively, ‘was told by the cardinal that as an infant you were stolen by pirates.’
He stares at him for a moment, then smiles in slow delight. ‘How I miss my master. Now he has gone north, there is no one to invent me.’
Dr Cranmer, cautious: ‘So it is not true? Because I wondered if there was doubt over whether you were baptised. I fear it could be a question, in such an event.’
‘But the event never took place. Really. Pirates would have given me back.’
Dr Cranmer frowns. ‘You were an unruly child?’
‘If I’d known you then, I could have knocked down your schoolmaster for you.’
Cranmer has stopped eating; not that he has tasted much. He thinks, at some level of his being this man will always believe I am a heathen; I will never disabuse him now. He says, ‘Do you miss your studies? Your life has been disrupted since the king made you an ambassador and had you tossed on the high seas.’
‘In the Bay of Biscay, when I was coming from Spain, we had to bale out the ship. I heard the sailors’ confessions.’
‘They must have been something to hear.’ He laughs. ‘Shouted over the noise of the storm.’
After that strenuous journey – though the king was pleased with his embassy – Cranmer might have dropped back into his old life, except that he had mentioned, meeting Gardiner in passing, that the European universities might be polled on the king’s case. You’ve tried the canon lawyers; now try the theologians. Why not? the king said; bring me Dr Cranmer and put him in charge of it. The Vatican said it had nothing against the idea, except that the divines should not be offered money: a merry caveat, coming from a Pope with the surname of de’ Medici. To him, this initiative seems nearly futile – but he thinks of Anne Boleyn, he thinks of what her sister had said: she’s not getting any younger. ‘Look, you’ve found a hundred scholars, at a score of universities, and some say the king is right –’
‘And if you find two hundred more, what will it matter? Clement isn’t open to persuasion now. Only to pressure. And I don’t mean moral pressure.’
‘But it’s not Clement we have to persuade of the king’s case. It’s all of Europe. All Christian men.’
‘I’m afraid the Christian women may be harder still.’
Cranmer drops his eyes. ‘I could never persuade my wife of anything. I would never have thought to try.’ He pauses. ‘We are two widowers, I think, Master Cromwell, and if we are to become colleagues, I must not leave you wondering, or at the mercy of stories that people will bring to you.’
The light is fading around them while he talks, and his voice, each murmur, each hesitation, trails away into the dusk. Outside the room where they sit, where the house is going on its nightly course, there is a banging and scraping, as if trestles were being moved, and a faint sound of cheering and whooping. But he ignores it, settles his attention on the priest. Joan, an orphan, he says, servant in a gentleman’s house where he used to visit; no people of her own, no marriage portion; he pitied her. A whisper in a panelled room raises spirits from the fens, fetches the dead: Cambridge twilights, damp seeping from the marshes and rush lights burning in a bare swept room where an act of love takes place. I could not help but marry her, Dr Cranmer says, and indeed, how can a man help marrying? His college took away his fellowship, of course, you cannot have married fellows. And naturally she had to leave her place, and not knowing what else to do with her, he lodged her at the Dolphin, which is kept by some connections of his, some – he confesses, not without a downward glance – some relations of his, yes it is true that some of his people keep the Dolphin.
‘It’s nothing to be ashamed of. The Dolphin is a good house.’
Ah, you know it: and he bites his lip.
He studies Dr Cranmer: his way of blinking, the cautious finger he lays to his chin, his eloquent eyes and his pale praying hands. So Joan was not, he says, she was not, you see, a barmaid, whatever people say, and I know what they do say. She was a wife with a child in her belly, and he a poor scholar, preparing to live with her in honest poverty, but that didn’t happen, in the event. He thought he might find a position as secretary to some gentleman, or as a tutor, or that he might earn a living by his pen, but all that scheming was to no avail. He thought they might move from Cambridge, even from England, but they didn’t have to, in the end. He hoped some connection of his would do something for him, before the child was born: but when Joan died in labour, no one could do anything for him, not any more. ‘If the child had lived I would have salvaged something. As it was, no one knew what to say to me. They did not know whether to condole with me on losing my wife, or congratulate me because Jesus College had taken me back. I took holy orders; why not? All that, my marriage, the child I thought I would have, my colleagues seemed to regard it as some sort of miscalculation. Like losing your way in the woods. You get home and never think of it again.’
‘There are some strange cold people in this world. It is priests, I think. Saving your presence. Training themselves out of natural feeling. They mean it for the best, of course.’
‘It was not a mistake. We did have a year. I think of her every day.’
The door opens; it is Alice bringing in lights. ‘This is your daughter?’
Rather than explain his family, he says, ‘This is my lovely Alice. This is not your job, Alice?’
She bobs, a small genuflection to a churchman. ‘No, but Rafe and the others want to know what you are talking about so long. They are waiting to know if there will be a dispatch to the cardinal tonight. Jo is standing by with her needle and thread.’
‘Tell them I will write in my own hand, and we will send it tomorrow. Jo may go to bed.’
‘Oh, we are not going to bed. We are running Gregory’s greyhounds up and down the hall and making a noise fit to wake the dead.’
‘I can see why you don’t want to break off.’
‘Yes, it is excellent,’ Alice says. ‘We have the manners of scullery maids and no one will ever want to marry us. If our aunt Mercy had behaved like us when she was a girl, she would have been knocked round the head till she bled from the ears.’
‘Then we live in happy times,’ he says.
When she has gone, and the door is closed behind her, Cranmer says, ‘The children are not whipped?’
‘We try to teach them by example, as Erasmus suggests, though we all like to race the dogs up and down and make a noise, so we are not doing very well in that regard.’ He does not know if he should smile; he has Gregory; he has Alice, and Johane and the child Jo, and in the corner of his eye, at the periphery of his vision, the little pale girl who spies on the Boleyns. He has hawks in his mews who move towards the sound of his voice. What has this man?
‘I think of the king’s advisers,’ Dr Cranmer says. ‘The sort of men who are about him now.’
And he has the cardinal, if the cardinal still thinks well of him after all that has passed. If he dies, he has his son’s sable hounds to lie at his feet.
‘They are able men,’ Cranmer says, ‘who will do anything he wants, but it seems to me – I do not know how it seems to you – that they are utterly lacking in any understanding of his situation … any compunction or kindness. Any charity. Or love.’
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