The Mirror and the Light (Mirror | Part 3)

Unwilling. That will leave room for an annulment, when the Emperor offers something better. ‘Wilhelm has not done badly out of us,’ he says. ‘Better than Anna.’ He thinks, I doubt she will want to marry any other man, now Henry has mauled her.

Rafe says, ‘The French swear they will carry their princess to the altar, if need be. She is only twelve years old, so she cannot weigh heavy.’ He sighs. ‘Helen, sir, begs to be commended to you. She prays night and morning for you. As do our little children, and all your friends.’

Not a great number of prayers, then, to bowl at Heaven’s door. Though he can count on some from the Archbishop of Canterbury, and surely his requests roll in like thunder. And Robert Barnes is praying for me, and I for Robert Barnes. Neither of us has much to ask for now, but courage. As Wyatt writes, Lauda finem: praise the end.

Edmund Walsingham, the Lieutenant of the Tower, comes next day. ‘Do not be alarmed, my lord. I bring no bad news. Only that you must move house.’

So his interrogators are done with him. ‘Where am I going?’

‘The Bell Tower, sir, next my lodging.’

‘I am familiar with it,’ he says dryly. ‘Can I not go to the Beauchamp Tower?’

‘Occupied, my lord.’

‘Christophe,’ he says, ‘pack my books. Send to Austin Friars for warmer clothes for me, the walls are thick there.’ He says to the lieutenant, ‘When Thomas More was held in the Bell Tower, he was allowed to walk in your garden. Shall I have that liberty?’

‘No, my lord.’

Walsingham is a tight-lipped Flodden veteran. He has been in his post fifteen years, and has no intention of making a slip-up now.

‘More was not locked in. Shall I be locked in?’

‘Yes, my lord.’

He puts his coat on. ‘Allons.’ He says his goodbyes to the goddesses; a last flitting glance over his shoulder. No trace of Anne Boleyn. He remembers her saying – was it in this very room? – ‘Be good to me.’ He thinks, if I see her again, perhaps this time I will.

Out into the open air. He looks about him. All he can see is armed men. The lieutenant says, ‘I trust the guard will not disturb you.’

A breath of the river air. A dance of green leaves. He feels the sun on his shoulder. A workman sitting on scaffolding, whistling, his shirt off; ‘The Jolly Forester’ … He feels netted by the past, suspended in some high blue instant, strung up in air. By noon the forester will be scorched.

I have been a foster long and many day,

My locks ben hore.

I shall hang up my horn by the greenwood spray:

Foster will I be no more.

The walk is too brief. ‘Shall I go to the lower chamber or the upper?’

When he had arrived at the Tower, they had fired the cannon: it is the custom, when a personage is brought in. The ground quakes, the river boils, and inside the accused, as he steps onto the wharf, his marrow wobbles, his spleen protests, the chambers of his skull rattle. On the threshold of the Bell Tower, on the ascending stair, he feels again this deep agitation. It is a weakness, but he will not show it to the lieutenant: just steadies himself with a brush of his fingertips against the wall.

All the while that my bow I bend,

Shall I wed no wife:

I shall build me a bower at the greenwood’s end

Thereto lead my life.

The doors are opened into the lower room. It is a stony, vaulted and spacious chamber. The fireplace is empty and swept clean. The walls here are twelve feet thick, and light falls from windows set high above the head. There is a figure sitting at the table. Silently he asks, ‘Is it you?’ Thomas More rises from his place, crosses the room and melts into the wall.

‘Martin, is it you? You look well. How’s my god-daughter?’

The turnkey takes off his cap. He’d been about to say, sorry to see you here, sir: the usual empty formula; best pre-empt that. ‘Five now, sir, and a good little soul, bless you for asking. No harm in her.’

No harm? What strange things people say. ‘Is she learning her letters?’

‘A girl, sir? Only gets them into trouble.’

‘You don’t want her to read the gospel?’

‘She can marry a man who will read it for her. Can I fetch you anything?’

‘Is Lord Lisle still here?’

‘I couldn’t say.’

‘The old lady? Margaret Pole?’

It has occurred to him that Henry might execute Margaret, now he is not standing by to stay his hand. ‘Very well,’ he says to Martin. ‘You have orders not to talk, I understand that. Do you think I could have a fire lit?’

‘I’ll see to it,’ Martin says. ‘You always did feel the cold. I remember when you used to come in and sit with Thomas More. You’d say to him, “We should have a fire.” He’d say, “I can’t afford it, Thomas.” You’d say, “Christ save us, I’ll pay for the fire – will you stop trying to wring my bloody heart? You may be a papist but you’re not a pauper.”’

‘Did I?’ He is amazed. ‘Did I say that? My bloody heart?’

‘More, he would get you all of a wamble,’ Martin says. ‘When they rang the curfew, he’d come in from the garden and he’d sit down and write all night. He’d sit at that very table, wrapped in a sheet. It was like a winding sheet – the sight would turn me cold. Myself, I never saw hair of him, not since that day he was led away. But some claim they have. And as I am alive and a Christian man, you will hear the old fellow overhead, Fisher. You hear him dragging himself across the floor.’

‘You shouldn’t believe in ghosts,’ he says uncertainly.

‘I don’t,’ Martin says. ‘But who are they to care, if I believe in them or not? You listen out tonight. You can hear old Fisher shuffle across, and then the chair scrape, where he rests his weight on the back of it.’

‘There was no weight to rest,’ he says. The bishop was so thin that you couldn’t use him to stop a draught. What can you do with a man who, when he sat down to dine, would set a skull on the table, where other people would have the salt pot?

‘Your boy can sleep in here on a pallet,’ Martin says, ‘if you don’t like to sit up on your own.’

‘Sit up? I’ll sleep. I always sleep. Martin, if my son Gregory were brought here as prisoner, or Sir Richard Cromwell, you would tell me?’

Martin scrapes his foot along the floor. ‘Aye, I would. I would try to get you word.’

There are old rush mats underfoot. He thinks, I will get something better sent from home: if anything is left.

It is a chamber for a favoured prisoner, but there is no mistaking it for an ordinary room. Still, the night passes without incident. He listens out for Fisher but the old bishop is nodding. He wakes once and thinks, kings may repent, there are examples. For a while his mind goes round and round, seeking one. The chroniclers tell us that in the reign of the third Henry, the king punished his servant Hubert de Burgh, Earl of Kent, starving him out of sanctuary and throwing him into a deep dungeon. Hubert lived two years in irons, before he escaped and got his earldom back.

With the morning Rafe comes. ‘So, my letter, how did he receive it?’

Rafe’s movements are slow; he looks as though he has been at work through the night. He wants to call for a cup of ale for him, but Rafe says, no, no, I must tell you what passed. ‘The king turned out his councillors. And then he caused me to read your letter out loud.’

‘That must have taken you some time.’

‘When I had done he said, “Read it again, Sadler.” I said, “The whole, sir?” He hesitated and said, “No, you may omit the story of the marriage. Read where he makes his pleas.”

‘The second time I read it, he seemed much moved. I did not want to break his train of thought, but then I dared to say, “It takes but one word, sir.” He looked at me: “One word to do what?” He took my meaning, of course and I dared not venture further. Then he said, “Yes, I could free Cromwell, could I not? I could restore him tomorrow.”

‘I said, “The French would be amazed, sir” – thinking to prompt him, because you always counselled him, do what your enemy likes least.’

‘But I think the French are not the enemy,’ he says. ‘Since about last week.’

‘But then the king said, “You know, he has never forgiven me for Wolsey, and I have long wondered, to what extremity will sorrow lead him? Even when my son Richmond lay dying, he was pestering the physicians with his enquiries. Bishop Gardiner says, the cardinal himself might forgive, but the cardinal’s man never will.”

‘I said, “Sir, I swear it, the earl is reconciled. He has let the cardinal go.” But he cut me off. He said, “Here in my writing box I have his earlier letter.” He turned the key and took it out and gave it to me in my hand. He said, “Read this one. Read where it says he would make me live ever young.” I did so. The king said, “He cannot, can he?” I would swear, sir, that tears stood in his eyes. My heart beat fast, I thought, he will utter now: “Let Essex go.” But he got up and walked to the window. He said, “Thank you for your patience, Master Secretary.” I said, “I was well-trained, sir, by a patient man.” He said, “Now you can leave me.”’

‘You did well, Rafe. You did more than I had any right to expect.’

Rafe says, ‘When I was a little child you brought me on a journey. You set me by the fire and said, this is where you live now, we will be good to you, never fear. I had left my mother that day and I did not know where I was, and I had never seen London, still less your house, but I never cried, did I?’

He cries now, like an angry baby, in the ungraceful way that red-haired people do: his skin flushing, his body trembling. ‘Where in the name of God is Cranmer?’ he says. ‘Where is Wyatt? Where is Edward Seymour? They will be ashamed for the term of their lives.’

‘Cranmer will live past this,’ he says. ‘I do not say he will sleep well at night, but he will survive. And Wyatt will write a verse about me. And Seymour must live to guide the little prince, when he, when Henry –’ He will not say it. The thought has entered his mind before now: what if a fever rises this very night, what if he coughs and strains to breathe, what if his lungs fill with water again and the poison from his leg kills him? Then the state will hold its breath. The executive arm will suspend its action, even though the knife is raised. The prince will need me. The council will need me. Edward Seymour will turn the key and let me go.

When Rafe goes out, he tells Christophe, ‘Get a pack of cards.’ He shows him the painted queen, shuffles and lays out three. ‘Now, where is she?’

Christophe’s stubby finger descends.

‘No.’ He turns the card up. ‘Now, watch me, I am teaching you this trick. So if you are ever without money or food, the lady will provide.’ He says softly, ‘It is only if the worst should befall. You will go to Gregory. Or Master Richard will take you in. Tell them I say to get you a wife, to save you from sin.’

He is working on how to save his household staff. Some will go to Gregory, others to Richard – presuming the king does not strip the Cromwells of all they have. Wyatt will take his pick, now he is moneyed and has several properties to staff. He thinks, Brandon will want my huntsmen, my dog-keepers. Some merchant in the city, who knew his father, will take Dick Purser. The Italian merchants will covet my cooks. Young Mathew can go back to Wolf Hall, though his French will be wasted in Wiltshire. Back in April, when he had thought he would fall any moment, he had called together the singing children from his chapel; he had thanked them for their services, wished them good luck in their lives, and sent them home to their parents, each with a present of twenty pounds. Once he was made earl he thought, shall I recall them? Now he is glad he did not.

In Italy, when he was working for the bankers, he learned the art of memory, and has practised it through his life since. You make an image for each memory and leave them in the churches you frequent, in the streets you walk, on the banks of the river you sail. You leave them in ditches, between the furrows of a field, and hanging from trees: crossbows and skillets, dragons and stars. When you run out of real places you dream up more; you design islands, like Utopia.

Now, sensing he has less than a week to live, he must pick up his images from where he has left them, walking his own inner terrain. He must traverse his whole life, waking and sleeping: you cannot leave your memories alone in this world, for other men to own.

In the dusk the cardinal returns, as a disturbance in his vision. ‘Where have you been?’ he asks him.

‘I don’t know, Thomas.’ The old man sounds forlorn. ‘I’d tell you if I could.’

Offered a chair, he looks at it, averse. ‘I won’t sit where Thomas More sat. For what that ingrate did to me, I will never pass the time of day with him. If I smell him these days, I go the other way.’

He says, ‘Sir, you know I did not betray you? Despite what your daughter thinks?’

Wolsey paces, dragging his scarlet. At last he says, ‘Well, Thomas … I dare say … women get things wrong.’

His great fatigue, which had lifted when he was facing Gardiner or Norfolk every day, now returns. The feeling around his heart – that it is crushed, forced out of shape – he now understands as a deformity caused by grief. He feels he is dragging corpses, shovelling them up: Robert Aske, Tom Truth, Harry Norris and Will Brereton, little Francis Weston and Mark Smeaton with his lute. And even those in whose death no one can say he took a hand: Jane the queen, Harry Percy, Thomas Boleyn.

His mind turns over the questions that have been put to him, as if the interrogations were still going on. He thinks about Richard Riche: ‘In June 1535, the prisoner said to me, “Richard, when the reign of King Cromwell dawns, you shall be a duke.”’

And Audley saying, faintly, ‘Riche, we cannot put that in the record. I think my lord was making a joke.’

He recalls Wriothesley, his outburst one afternoon: ‘He thought he was king already. He acted like a king. I remember when French merchants came to Greenwich, the year of the ice. They had goods they pressed on his Majesty, and his Majesty put them off, saying he had spent all his money fighting the Pilgrims. But then, seeing their distress and their journey wasted, he graciously agreed to purchases. But my lord Privy Seal forced them out of the king’s chambers and compounded a bargain with them, making them sell him at a lower price those goods that were intended for the king.’

He recalls that day: the ice-light in the chamber, the enticements laid before Henry: a velvet dog collar, a pair of strawberry sleeves and, for him, Lord Cromwell, the murrey-colour silk. Call-Me said, ‘Be careful sir.’ He remembers the strain on Call-Me’s face. He didn’t think he meant, be careful of me.

Edmund Walsingham comes in every day or so, and stays only long enough to witness his prisoner is still sound in mind and limb: it is as if he fears conversation will contaminate him. Kingston has his duties as councillor, and is at the Tower only on days of portent. So he has no one to talk to, except Christophe and his turnkey and the dead; and with daylight the ghosts melt away. You can hear a sigh, a soufflation, as they disperse themselves. They become a whistling draught, a hinge that wants oil; they subside into natural things, a vagrant mist, a coil of smoke from a dying fire.

He lives in dread that the king will stop Rafe’s visits. But it appears that the king still wishes him to have some news. Lord Hungerford is under sentence of death, Rafe says. ‘The French ambassador is spreading the rumour he has raped his daughter. But no such charge has been brought. There is enough with the sorcery and the sodomy.’

‘Marillac is emboldened,’ he says, ‘after all the rumours he has spread about me. There seem to be no consequences.’

He cannot find it in his heart to be sorry for Hungerford: except he is sorry for any confined creature, who knows his next outing will be his death. He would like Wolsey to come in so they could have a game of chess: though you should never play chess with a prelate, they always have a pawn in their sleeves. He craves the sight of Thomas More, with his grey stubble of beard and his tired eyes, sitting at the table as he used to do: that table which had taken on the aspect of an altar, the candle flame tugged by a draught. In the wet spring of 1535, More had a trick of absenting himself from the scene, so that what sat before you appeared already dead, a carcass, like the silvery corpse that you find in a spider’s web when the spider has died at home.

They speak of More as a martyr now, instead of a man who miscalculated the odds. He had said to Chapuys, More thought he could manipulate Henry, and perhaps he was right; but then he met what he had not reckoned on, he met Anne Boleyn. We councillors think we are men of vision and learning, we gravely delineate our position, set forth our plans and argue our case far into the night. Then some little girl sweeps through and upsets the candle and sets fire to our sleeve; leaves us slapping ourselves like madmen, trying to save our skin. It rankles with me, that some sneak thief like Riche should best me; that a fool like Polo should hole my boat, and a dolt like Lisle should drown me. Perhaps some people will say I have died for the gospel, as More died for the Pope. But most will not think me a martyr for anything, except the great cause of getting on in life.

By mid-month, the king is a single man again. Convocation first, then Parliament has acted to free him. Anna has agreed to everything proposed to her, and given back her wedding ring. Rafe says, ‘Parliament will petition the king to marry again. For the safety and comfort of the realm. However disinclined he feels, personally.’ He sighs. Master Secretary’s chain weighs heavy.

No rain falls. The heat does not falter. It seems Henry means to kill his slave through sheer disuse. The Visconti in Milan devised a torture regime that lasted for forty days, and on the fortieth day, though not before, the prisoner died. On the first day, you might cut off the man’s ear. Next day he rests. On the third day, gouge out an eye. He rests; he has another eye, but he does not know when you will choose to blind him. On day five, you will begin to tear off his skin in strips. This is not for any information he might give you. This is merely to make a spectacle, to overawe the city.

The third week in July his interrogators return, bringing fresh charges of corruption. There is a case that has been dragging on two years now, about a ship belonging to the brother of the Constable of France. He has the facts in his head, and he is sure he is clear in the matter, but he sees there is no defence against the version the French present. François is intent on hurrying him to the scaffold. ‘I don’t die quick enough for his liking,’ he says to Gardiner.

‘I doubt it will be long now,’ the bishop says. ‘Any day now the king will sign your attainder into law. Parliament will be rising. His Majesty will want to leave London for the summer.’

‘How is Norfolk’s niece?’

Gardiner looks gloomy. ‘Very pleased with her great fortune. A giddy little creature. Still, not for me to question the king’s choice.’

‘Bear that in mind,’ he says, ‘and you’ll go far, boy.’ He smiles. ‘Of course she is giddy. What else, at that age? You would not want her to think too much. History is against her.’

Gardiner looks pensive: ‘I fear it’s against us all.’

It is a busy day at the Bell Tower; Norfolk comes after, with more papers about the French ship. ‘You are to write to the council about it.’

‘Not to the king himself?’

‘Write by all means. I do suppose, though, he will be too occupied with my niece to read it.’

‘Has he said how I am to die, my lord?’

Norfolk does not answer. ‘My son Surrey says, if you had been left to run your course, you would have left no nobleman alive. He says, now is Cromwell stricken by his own staff. Now it is with him as it has been with many a man who has crossed him, both simple and grand.’

‘I do not dispute it,’ he says. ‘But it might give my lord Surrey pause, to imagine how he would order himself were he to find himself a prisoner here. Fortune and the king have raised him high, but he should not trust to that, the ground beneath our feet is slippery.’

‘I’ll tell him,’ Norfolk says. ‘By God, you wax sententious! Wise men have no need of such warnings. They wash their eyes clean every day. You think the king ever loved you? No. To him you were an instrument. As I am. A device. You and me, my son Surrey, we are no more to him than a trebuchet, a catapult, or any other engine of war. Or a dog. A dog who has served him through the hunting season. What do you do with a dog, when the season ends? You hang it.’

Norfolk ambles out. He can hear him talking to Martin outside the door, but he cannot make out what he says. ‘Christophe,’ he calls. ‘Paper and ink.’

Christophe is surprised. ‘Once again?’

He writes to the council. He denies he profited from the misfortune of the constable’s brother or his ship. Norfolk knows, he writes, he was present when the matter was aired; Fitzwilliam knows about it, and Bishop Bonner, he was envoy in France, he will remember the whole affair. For an hour, thinking and writing, he is taken out of himself, as if he were back at the council board. Straight away, he begins a letter to Henry. He has a good deal to say, but he knows that if the letter strays outside the conventions of supplication, Henry will not be able to hear it – not three times, not even once. Is it possible for a man to abase himself more than he has already? By mid-afternoon, he is weary. He gives it up. He puts down the pen and allows his mind to range. Chapuys is back in London, reappointed ambassador. Back at the old game, he thinks. Henry makes a bow to the French, then a genuflection to the Emperor. The cardinal would recognise it all.

That night when Wolsey comes blinking in, he says to him, ‘Be my good father. Stay with me till this is over.’

‘I’d like to stay,’ the old man says, ‘but I don’t know if I have the strength.’ He seems, muttering in the corner, to be preoccupied with his own end. He talks about the candles around his deathbed, George Cavendish gripping his hand. He describes the drawn faces of the monks at Leicester Abbey, peering down at him. He talks of his hasty burial, which he seems to know all about. ‘Why do I not have my right tomb,’ he says, ‘when I paid so much to that Italian of yours? Where are my great candlesticks? My dancing angels, where did they go?’

Martin, out of his charity, comes to sit with him. In More’s last days, the gaoler says, he talked a lot – he always did talk, just not when you wanted him to. He would talk of when he was a little boy, a scholar at St Anthony’s school. He would bear his satchel down West Cheap towards Threadneedle Street. On a winter’s morning at six o’clock, the streets were lit only by the frost on the cobblestones. St Anthony’s pigs, they called them, those little schoolfellows; by lantern light they assembled to chant their Latin.

‘Did he ever talk about Lambeth, about the palace?’

‘What, Archbishop Cranmer? He hated him.’

‘I mean, Lambeth in Morton’s day, when we were young. Thomas More was there as a boy, getting ready for Oxford, day after day at his books. Did he mention me?’

‘You? What had you to do with it, sir?’

He smiles. ‘I was there too.’

Uncle John says, ‘See the trays? That’s the young gentlemen’s suppers. They’re all studying hard, so if they wake up in the night, they’re turning over in their head a hard problem about Pythagoras, or St Jerome. And it makes them peckish. So they need a little bite of bread in their cupboards, and a measure of small beer. Now, boy, you know the third staircase? Up the top there’s Master Thomas More. He don’t like disturbing, so you creep in like a mouse. If he looks up you make your reverence. If he don’t you just creep out again, and not so much as a “Bless you.” Have you got that?’

He’s got it. He’s got the tray in his grasp, and he sets off on the sturdy legs that would make you think he was well-fed. What if he sat down on the bottom step, and ate the bread and drank the beer himself? Would he hear in the night Master More crying out with pangs in his belly? ‘Oh, feed me, feed me,’ he whimpers in a pitiful voice, as he mounts. ‘Oh, St Jerome, feed me!’

On the top step, the devil enters into him. He kicks open the door and bawls, ‘Master Thomas More!’

The young scholar looks up. His expression is mild and curious but he circles his book with his arm as if to protect it.

‘Master Thomas More, his supper!’

He rams it in the corner cupboard. ‘Hinge wants oiling,’ he says. ‘I’ll be back tomorrow and see to that.’ He creaks it to and fro, so it makes a double squeak. He wants to ask, what’s Pythagoras, is it an animal, is it a disease, is it a shape you can draw?

‘Master Thomas More, God bless him!’ he shouts. ‘Good night!’

He is about to slam the door when Master More calls, ‘Child?’ He intrudes himself back into the room. Master More sits blinking at him. He is fourteen, fifteen, skinny. Walter would laugh him out of the yard. Master More says softly, ‘If I gave you a penny, would you not do that, another night?’

He bounces down the stair richer. He bounces on every tread, and whistles. Fair’s fair. He was only paid to be quiet in the room, not quiet outside it. Master More will have to dig deeper into his pocket if he wants to live in the silence of the tomb. He runs away, towards his football game.

After that, every night he would lurk on the stair like a demon, till More thought the danger was passed. Then he’d burst in, bellowing ‘How do you, sir?’ slapping his tray down so that More splashed his ink. When More reminded him about the penny he’d paid, he opened his eyes wide: ‘I thought that was one time only?’

With a sigh and a half-smile, Master More disbursed.

He thought Thomas More would complain about him to the kitchen steward, who would call him in and hit him. Or perhaps the archbishop himself would call him in and hit him; or being a man of God, only harangue him. If that happened, he was planning to harangue him back. There were things old Morton should know, about how his kitchen was run: pewter that jumped off the table into some blackguard’s sack, fingers that dipped straight from a laundrymaid’s quim and into the fricassee.

But no one called him in. No one hit him: except the usual people, his father Walter, his sisters, his uncles, his aunts, the priest if he could catch him, Sion Madoc’s dad, different members of the Williams family, the Wycks family … but it seemed Thomas More had not hit him, even by proxy. The blow was held in suspension; he felt it hovering in the air, in those years when More used to hunt out heresy, and raid the homes and shops of his friends in the city. And when the blow fell, it was from another direction entirely; it was More who suffered, bundled to the scaffold on a wet July day, one of those days when the wind seems to come at you from all directions at once: the flutter of his shirt as he stood with neck bared, rivulets like tears running down his face, and a fine mist lying over the walls of the Tower, seeming to melt them into the grey, swollen river. It was an easy death, as these things go: a single stroke.

When they met as grown men, More had not remembered him at all.

Eustache Chapuys has returned to a London that is much changed: air sullen with suspicion, a queen come and gone. The king is sweeping up not only those he deems heretics, but also remnants of papistry, so the gaols are full. The ambassador looks fatigued and frail, they say, and expresses no joy at being back in his old post. He, Cromwell, knows there is no point in asking for a visit – being a man of sense Chapuys would not come near him – but he wonders, will he be there when I suffer? He does not want his son to be there, even if it is a simple beheading; he remembers how Gregory suffered at the death of Anne Boleyn, who was a stranger to him. He says to Rafe, ‘It is time for Gregory to write a letter repudiating me. He should speak ill of me. Say he does not know how he comes to be related to such a traitor. He should plead for the chance to redeem my errors and crimes, by serving his Majesty in the years to come.’

‘Yes,’ Rafe says, ‘but you know Gregory’s letters. And now no more for lack of time.’ He pauses. ‘I have had his wife Bess do it. Being the sister of the late Queen Jane, she was best placed, I thought, to touch the king’s heart.’

He thinks, I was always quick in everything; but Rafe Sadler, he is quick when it matters. ‘Even in the midst of his new happiness, I do not doubt he will remember Jane.’

Rafe says, ‘It is forbidden to wear mourning for the death of a traitor. But Richard Cromwell says he will do it.’

‘He should not,’ he says mildly. ‘Tell him it is not what I advise.’

All the same, he smiles. Rafe looks around. ‘Shall I ask Edmund Walsingham to move you elsewhere? It makes me uneasy, this place.’

‘You get used to it. If you stand on that stool, you can get a view of the Byward Tower. Try it.’

Rafe cannot see out, because he is too short. But the attempt allows him to keep his face to the wall till he is composed, and then embrace his master a last time, and go out into the hot afternoon.

When the door has closed, and Rafe’s footsteps and voice have faded away, he opens his books. Volumes of legends, compendiums of saints: legends of consolation. Thank God they did not take them away; but he thinks, I must make sure they do not go astray, after. I must leave a letter about those few possessions I retain, and hope it will be honoured.

He reads the book of Erasmus, Preparation unto Death: written only five, six years back, under the patronage of Thomas Boleyn. It tires his eyes; he would rather look at pictures. He lays the book aside and turns the pages of his engravings. He sees Icarus, his wings melting, plummeting into the waves. It was Daedalus who invented the wings and made the first flight, he more circumspect than his son: scraping above the labyrinth, bobbing over walls, skimming the ocean so low his feet were wet. But then as he rose on the breeze, peasants gaped upwards, supposing they were seeing gods or giant moths; and as he gained height there must have been an instant when the artificer knew, in his pulse and his bones, This is going to work. And that instant was worth the rest of his life.

On the afternoon of 27 July, both the constable and the lieutenant come in. Kingston says, ‘Sir, the king grants you mercy as to the manner of your death. It is to be the axe, and may I say that I rejoice to hear it –’ Kingston breaks off. ‘I beg your lordship’s pardon – I mean to say, your lordship has often sought such mercy for others, and seldom failed.’

So I won’t see August, he thinks. The hares that flee the harvester, the cold morning dews after St Bartholomew’s Day. Or the leaf fall, the dark blue nights.

‘Will it be tomorrow?’

Kingston is not supposed to tell him. But Walsingham says smoothly, ‘If your lordship said your prayers tonight, you would do well.’

Kingston gives up the pretence. ‘I shall come about the accustomed hour of nine, and with you will go Lord Hungerford.’

So I am to die with a monster, he thinks. Or a man who has made monstrous enemies, who have great imaginative powers to shape the condemned to their desires.

Walsingham says, ‘Will you have a confessor?’

‘I will if I can have Robert Barnes.’

The two officers look at each other. ‘You should know he is condemned,’ the lieutenant says. ‘He will go to Smithfield in a day or so.’

‘Alone?’

‘With the priest Garrett, and Father William Jerome. We are waiting for our orders. And certain papists are expected to hang in a day or two: Thomas Abel, that was chaplain to the Princess of Aragon.’

Garrett, Jerome: friends of his and of the gospel. Abel, a veteran opponent. A crowded week, he thinks. ‘I hope there are enough competent people.’

Kingston says testily, ‘We do our best.’

He stands up. He wishes to be left alone. ‘It is not long since I confessed, and I have had scant opportunity of sin since I came here.’

‘That is not it.’ Kingston is disconcerted. ‘You are meant to pass your whole life in review, and discover new sins each time.’

‘I know that,’ he says. ‘I know how to do it. I live here with Thomas More. I have read the books. We are all dying, just at different speeds.’

Walsingham says, ‘The Duke of Norfolk has asked that your lordship be informed – the king marries Katherine Howard tomorrow.’

Christophe says, ‘I will bring my pallet. I will stay beside you tonight.’

‘You need not fear,’ he says. ‘I shall not put an end to myself. I shall trust the headsman to do it quicker than I could.’

‘You will write letters?’

He thinks about it. ‘No. I am done.’

He sends Christophe out to bask in the sunshine: to drink his health, and sit, drowsy, on a wall, among other servants, talking no doubt of the uncertainty of their fortune, with such masters.

He thinks of how tomorrow will be. By rank he is above Hungerford, so he will die first. The king’s decision has spared him much agony and shame. He will pray for a clean stroke. He thinks of Anne Boleyn, ordering up her coronation clothes: ‘Thomas must go into crimson.’

On the scaffold he will praise the king: his mercy, his grace, his care for all his people. It is expected of him, and he has a duty to those left behind. He will say, I am not a heretic, I die a member of the universal church; and let the crowd make what they will of it. Though every man dreads to know the hour of his death, the Christian dreads more a sudden end, such as his father met: mors improvisa with no time to repent. Neighbours in Putney believed Walter Cromwell had mended his ways, given up the drinking, rowing and fighting. But one night he quarrelled with a fellow churchwarden – and it was no godly dispute, it was a row over cockfighting. Coming away, leaving the other fellow with a black eye, Walter kicked his way into the house and shouted for victuals. He was pale and sweating, the witnesses said, but still he fell on a dish of cold meat, all the time vituperating. Next he complained about his dinner, rubbing his chest and saying it had given him a pain; five minutes later he fell face-down on the table. They laid him flat, and, ‘God damn you, I’m choking,’ he said, ‘get me up, get me up –’ and that was the last word he spoke.

There was a good crowd at his burying. He, Thomas, had paid for Masses for his soul. ‘Do you think it does any good?’ he had said to the priest.

‘Don’t despair of him,’ the fellow said. ‘He was rough, but he wasn’t all bad.’

‘No,’ he said, ‘I don’t mean, will prayers do Walter any good. I mean, do they do good for any dead person? God is watching us all our lives. Surely, if you live as long as Walter, God has formed a view. Unless He always knows.’

‘That sounds like heresy to me,’ the priest said.

‘Of course it does. It hits your pocket. If God knows His mind, what becomes of your chantries and your rosaries and your fees for a thousand years of Masses?’

He remembers himself lying smashed and broken in the inn yard in Putney, fifteen years old: his father standing over him, his blood on the cobbles, the twine of his father’s boot sprung free from the leather. Walter shouting down at him and he shouting back, je voudrais mourir autrement – not here, not now, and not like this.

But, no, he thinks, I was not shouting. I did not speak French. Torn and contused, I got myself off the ground and across the Narrow Sea. I fought other men’s wars, for money, till at last I had the sense to earn it in easier ways: Cremuello at your service, your shadow in a glass.

One night long ago in Venice he had glimpsed a woman, a wraith in the watery mist. A courtesan, she let her lazy laughter float after her on the air; the streak of her yellow scarf was the only colour, the click of her shoes on cobbles the only sound. Then a door opened in the wall, and darkness swallowed her up. She was gone so swiftly and completely that he wondered if he had dreamed her. He had thought, if ever I need to disappear, Venice is where I will come.

Sometimes in those days he woke from dreams that threatened to drown him, his eyelashes wet; he woke between languages, not knowing where he was but filled with an inchoate longing to be somewhere else. He thinks back to his childhood, his days on the river, days in the fields. His life has been filled with fugitive women. He remembers the stepmothers Walter would bring home: scarcely had you made your duties to one of them, before Walter fell out with her, or she flounced off with her clothes tied up in a bundle. He thinks of his daughters Anne and Grace; perhaps he will meet them as women grown? He thinks of Anselma’s daughter, moving slowly in his house with soft and curious eyes, picking up those things that belonged to him, his seal, his books, examining his globe of the world and asking, ‘This island, where is this? Is this the New World?’

Mr Wriothesley has moved into Austin Friars, they tell him. The king has ordered him to dissolve the Cromwell household. By day, Call-Me strides through the rooms, expansive, breathing in the smell of paper and ink, rosewater and resin. But by night the leopard pads the floor, smelling the fur of long-dead animals, spaniels and marmosets, gazing upward at the nightingale mute in her cage. She sniffs out the boiled meats of a decade of dinners, and the bones of mice behind the panelling; her opaque, unmoved glance follows the flight of a bird outside the window. He thinks, I have spent hundreds of pounds on glass. Wriothesley cannot dissolve my household. He can only walk through the glass and shatter it, bleeding from a thousand cuts.

Christophe comes back. He looks unsteady: drink, or sun, or something else. He says, ‘You could have stayed out longer. I did not lack for company.’

July, and the nights are short. When the light begins to fade, he sends the boy out again to find his supper, while he thinks of Heaven and Hell. When he pictures Hell he can only think of a cold place, a wasteland, a wharf, a marsh, a landing stage; Walter distantly bawling, then the bawling coming nearer. That is how it will be – not pain itself, but the constant apprehension of pain; the constant apprehension of fault, the knowledge that you are going to be punished for something you couldn’t help and didn’t even know was wrong; and the discord in Hell will be constant, repeating for ever and ever, a violent argument being carried on in the next room. When he thinks of Heaven he imagines it as a vast party arranged by the cardinal; like that field in Picardy, the Field of the Cloth of Gold, with palaces built on unlikely and marginal ground, acres of clear glass catching the sun. But his master should have built in a softer climate. Perhaps, he thinks, this time tomorrow I will inhabit some kinder city: the blue shadows lengthening, the sun’s final rays softening the lines of bell towers and domes; ladies in niches at their prayers, a small dog with a plumed tail strolling the streets; indifferent doves alighting on gilded spires.

After supper he packs up his books. He will ask Kingston to give them to Rafe. He puts away Clendardus, his grammar. He has not made much progress with Hebrew, in part because he has been occupied with the king’s business; there was never a prisoner more hard-pressed, or who called for so much ink. He wishes he had ever met the scholar – Nicolas Cleynaerts, as he is properly; his Antwerp friends say he is a very great linguist, who has spent many hours by lamplight, through the northern winters, learning to copy the loops and curls of Arabic script. In pursuit of books in that tongue he went some years ago to Salamanca, and from there to Granada, but only to be disappointed; the Inquisition is diligent these days in locking away the writings of the Arabs. Some say Clendardus will go into Africa next, and learn to read the holy book of the Mohammedans. He pictures this scholar, strolling through the markets. His diet will be dates and olives, and honeyed pears with orange-blossom water, and lamb baked with saffron and apricots.

All your life you tramp the empty road with the wind at your back. You are hungry and your spirit is perturbed as you journey on into the gloom. But when you get to your destination the doorkeeper knows you. A torch goes before you as you cross the court. Inside there is a fire and a flask of wine, there is a candle and beside the candle your book. You pick it up and find your place is marked. You sit down by the fire, open it, and begin your story. You read on, into the night.

At nine o’clock, 27 July, he kneels down and makes his prayer. He had wondered how you would recognise your dead, when you yourself go to Judgement. But as he waits out this last night, he sees how they are visible, and how they shine. They are distilled into a spark, into an instant. There is air between their ribs, their flesh is honeycombed with light, and the marrow of their bones is molten with God’s grace.

He thinks he sees the eel boy looking at him from the corner of the room. Shog off, you streak of piss, he says.

He does not sleep, then perhaps he does. He dreams of four women, veiled, standing by his bed. He wakes and looks for them in the dark, but there is only Christophe, snoring on his pallet. He pictures Christophe in Calais, at Calkwell Street: his ropes of hair, his unspeakable apron. Who could guess the boy would be the companion of his last night? He thinks of the memory engine, its ledges and recesses, its vaults.

It must be that he sleeps again, because he sees himself as a child. All about him are the airy forms of playmates, other sons that Walter had, sons born before him who had died. He sees these elders, some three or four of them kneeling in profile, carved on a bench end or painted on a wall: their sizes running down from the tallest and the longest dead, to himself, the littlest and the least.

He half-wakes and asks himself, did Walter speak of such sons? Never: yet each time his father had expressed dissatisfaction with him – with, say, a boot or a fist – he had felt their frail dead presence, their silent commiseration, as a faint stir in the air.

The first bells make him sit up. He puts a foot on the floor. He hears Christophe muttering something: prayers, he hopes. He sees himself, crawling across the cobbles in Florence, damaged beyond repair: to the Frescobaldi gate.