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Sir Thomas’s face has drained; the scarlet spots have vanished from his cheeks, and he is almost fainting with rage. As he quits the room, he whispers, ‘Butcher’s boy.’ And as he passes the clerk – whose beefy hand lies idly on his desk – he sneers, ‘Butcher’s dog.’
The door bangs. The cardinal says, ‘Come out, dog.’ He sits laughing, with his elbows on his desk and his head in his hands. ‘Mark and learn,’ he says. ‘You can never advance your own pedigree – and God knows, Tom, you were born in a more dishonourable estate than me – so the trick is always to keep them scraped up to their own standards. They made the rules; they cannot complain if I am the strictest enforcer. Percys above Boleyns. Who does he think he is?’
‘Is it good policy to make people angry?’
‘Oh, no. But it amuses me. My life is hard and I find I want amusement.’ The cardinal casts on him a kindly eye; he suspects he may be this evening’s further diversion, now that Boleyn has been torn into strips and dropped on the ground like orange peel. ‘Who need one look up to? The Percys, the Staffords, the Howards, the Talbots: yes. Use a long stick to stir them, if you must. As for Boleyn – well, the king likes him, and he is an able man. Which is why I open all his letters, and have done for years.’
‘So has your lordship heard – no, forgive me, it is not fit for your ears.’
‘What?’ says the cardinal.
‘It is only rumour. I should not like to mislead Your Grace.’
‘You cannot speak and not speak. You must tell me now.’
‘It’s only what the women are saying. The silk women. And the cloth merchants’ wives.’ He waits, smiling. ‘Which is of no interest to you, I’m sure.’
Laughing, the cardinal pushes back his chair, and his shadow rises with him. Firelit, it leaps. His arm darts out, his reach is long, his hand is like the hand of God.
But when God closes his hand, his subject is across the room, back to the wall.
The cardinal gives ground. His shadow wavers. It wavers and comes to rest. He is still. The wall records the movement of his breath. His head inclines. In a halo of light he seems to pause, to examine his handful of nothing. He splays his fingers, his giant firelit hand. He places it flat on his desk. It vanishes, melted into the cloth of damask. He sits down again. His head is bowed; his face, half-dark.
He Thomas, also Tomos, Tommaso and Thomaes Cromwell, withdraws his past selves into his present body and edges back to where he was before. His single shadow slides against the wall, a visitor not sure of his welcome. Which of these Thomases saw the blow coming? There are moments when a memory moves right through you. You shy, you duck, you run; or else the past takes your fist and actuates it, without the intervention of will. Suppose you have a knife in your fist? That’s how murder happens.
He says something, the cardinal says something. They break off. Two sentences go nowhere. The cardinal resumes his chair. He hesitates before him; he sits down. The cardinal says, ‘I really would like the London gossip. But I wasn’t planning to beat it out of you.’
The cardinal bows his head, frowns at a paper on his desk; he is allowing time for the difficult moment to pass, and when he speaks again his tone is measured and easy, like a man telling anecdotes after supper. ‘When I was a child, my father had a friend – a customer, really – who was of a florid complexion.’ He touches his sleeve, in illustration. ‘Like this … scarlet. Revell was his name, Miles Revell.’ His hand drifts to rest again, palm downwards on the blackish damask. ‘For some reason I used to believe … though I dare say he was an honest citizen, and liked a glass of Rhenish … I used to believe he was a drinker of blood. I don’t know … some story I suppose that I had heard from my nurse, or from some other silly child … and then when my father’s apprentices knew about it – only because I was foolish enough to whine and cry – they would shout out, “Here comes Revell for his cup of blood, run, Thomas Wolsey …” I used to flee as if the devil were after me. Put the marketplace between us. I marvel that I didn’t fall under a wagon. I used to run, and never look. Even today,’ he says – he picks up a wax seal from the desk, turns it over, turns it over, puts it down – ‘even today, when I see a fair, florid man – let us say, the Duke of Suffolk – I feel inclined to burst into tears.’ He pauses. His gaze comes to rest. ‘So, Thomas … can’t a cleric stand up, unless you think he’s after your blood?’ He picks up the seal again; he turns it over in his fingers; he averts his eyes; he begins to play with words. ‘Would a bishop abash you? A parish clerk panic you? A deacon disconcert?’
He says, ‘What is the word? I don’t know in English … an estoc …’
Perhaps there is no English word for it: the short-bladed knife that, at close quarters, you push up under the ribs. The cardinal says, ‘And this was …?’
This was some twenty years ago. The lesson is learned and learned well. Night, ice, the still heart of Europe; a forest, lakes silver beneath a pattern of winter stars; a room, firelight, a shape slipping against the wall. He didn’t see his assassin, but he saw his shadow move.
‘All the same …’ says the cardinal. ‘It’s forty years since I saw Master Revell. He will be long dead, I suppose. And your man?’ He hesitates. ‘Long dead too?’
It is the most delicate way that can be contrived, to ask a man if he has killed someone.
‘And in Hell, I should think. If your lordship pleases.’
That makes Wolsey smile; not the mention of Hell, but the bow to the breadth of his jurisdiction. ‘So if you attacked the young Cromwell, you went straight to the fiery pit?’
‘If you had seen him, my lord. He was too dirty for Purgatory. The Blood of the Lamb can do much, we are told, but I doubt if it could have wiped this fellow clean.’
‘I am all for a spotless world,’ Wolsey says. He looks sad. ‘Have you made a good confession?’
‘It was a long time ago.’
‘Have you made a good confession?’
‘My lord cardinal, I was a soldier.’
‘Soldiers have hope of Heaven.’
He looks up into Wolsey’s face. There’s no knowing what he believes. He says, ‘We all have that.’ Soldiers, beggars, sailors, kings.
‘So you were a ruffian in your youth,’ the cardinal says. ‘Ça ne fait rien.’ He broods. ‘This dirty fellow who attacked you … he was not, in fact, in holy orders?’
He smiles. ‘I didn’t ask.’
‘These tricks of memory …’ the cardinal says. ‘Thomas, I shall try not to move without giving you warning. And in that way we shall do very well together.’
But the cardinal looks him over; he is still puzzling. It is early in their association and his character, as invented by the cardinal, is at this stage a work in progress; in fact, perhaps it is this evening that sets it going? In the years to come, the cardinal will say, ‘I often wonder, about the monastic ideal – especially as applied to the young. My servant Cromwell, for instance – his youth was secluded, spent almost entirely in fasting, prayer and study of the Church Fathers. That’s why he’s so wild nowadays.’
And when people say, is he? – recalling, as best they can, a man who seems peculiarly discreet; when they say, really? Your man Cromwell? the cardinal will shake his head and say, but I try to mend matters, of course. When he breaks the windows we just call in the glaziers and part with the cash. As for the procession of aggrieved young women … Poor creatures, I pay them off …
But tonight he is back to business; hands clasped on his desk, as if holding together the evening passed. ‘Come now, Thomas, you were telling me of a rumour.’
‘The women judge from orders to the silk merchants that the king has a new –’ He breaks off and says, ‘My lord, what do you call a whore when she is a knight’s daughter?’
‘Ah,’ the cardinal says, entering into the problem. ‘To her face, “my lady.” Behind her back – well, what is her name? Which knight?’
He nods to where, ten minutes ago, Boleyn stood.
The cardinal looks alarmed. ‘Why did you not speak up?’
‘How could I have introduced the topic?’
The cardinal bows to the difficulty.
‘But it is not the Boleyn lady new at court. Not Harry Percy’s lady. It is her sister.’
‘I see.’ The cardinal drops back in his chair. ‘Of course.’
Mary Boleyn is a kind little blonde, who is said to have been passed all around the French court before coming home to this one, scattering goodwill, her frowning little sister trotting always at her heels.
‘Of course, I have followed the direction of His Majesty’s eye,’ the cardinal says. He nods to himself. ‘Are they now close? Does the queen know? Or can’t you say?’
He nods. The cardinal sighs. ‘Katherine is a saint. Still, if I were a saint, and a queen, perhaps I would feel I could take no harm from Mary Boleyn. Presents, eh? What sort? Not lavish, you say? I am sorry for her then; she should seize her advantage while it lasts. It’s not that our king has so many adventures, though they do say … they say that when His Majesty was young, not yet king, it was Boleyn’s wife who relieved him of his virgin state.’
‘Elizabeth Boleyn?’ He is not often surprised. ‘This one’s mother?’
‘The same. Perhaps the king lacks imagination in that way. Not that I ever believed it … If we were at the other side, you know,’ he gestures in the direction of Dover, ‘we wouldn’t even try to keep track of the women. My friend King François – they do say he once oozed up to the lady he’d been with the night before, gave her a formal kiss of the hand, asked her name, and wished they might be better friends.’ He bobs his head, liking the success of his story. ‘But Mary won’t cause difficulties. She’s an easy armful. The king could do worse.’
‘But her family will want to get something out of it. What did they get before?’
‘The chance to make themselves useful.’ Wolsey breaks off and makes a note. He can imagine its content: what Boleyn can have, if he asks nicely. The cardinal looks up. ‘So should I have been, in my interview with Sir Thomas – how shall I put it – more douce?’
‘I don’t think my lord could have been sweeter. Witness his face when he left us. The picture of soothed gratification.’
‘Thomas, from now on, any London gossip,’ he touches the damask cloth, ‘bring it right here to me. Don’t trouble about the source. Let the trouble be mine. And I promise never to assault you. Truly.’
‘It is forgotten.’
‘I doubt that. Not if you’ve carried the lesson all these years.’ The cardinal sits back; he considers. ‘At least she is married.’ Mary Boleyn, he means. ‘So if she whelps, he can acknowledge it or not, as he pleases. He has a boy from John Blount’s daughter and he won’t want too many.’
Too large a royal nursery can be encumbering to a king. The example of history and of other nations shows that the mothers fight for status, and try to get their brats induced somehow into the line of succession. The son Henry acknowledges is known as Henry Fitzroy; he is a handsome blond child made in the king’s own image. His father has created him Duke of Somerset and Duke of Richmond; he is not yet ten years old, and the senior nobleman in England.
Queen Katherine, whose boys have all died, takes it patiently: that is to say, she suffers.
When he leaves the cardinal, he is miserably angry. When he thinks back to his earlier life – that boy half-dead on the cobbles in Putney – he feels no tenderness for him, just a faint impatience: why doesn’t he get up? For his later self – still prone to getting into fights, or at least being in the place where a fight might occur – he feels something like contempt, washed with a queasy anxiety. That was the way of the world: a knife in the dark, a movement on the edge of vision, a series of warnings which have worked themselves into flesh. He has given the cardinal a shock, which is not his job; his job, as he has defined it at this time, is to feed the cardinal information and soothe his temper and understand him and embellish his jokes. What went wrong was an accident of timing only. If the cardinal had not moved so fast; if he had not been so edgy, not knowing how he could signal to him to be less despotic to Boleyn. The trouble with England, he thinks, is that it’s so poor in gesture. We shall have to develop a hand signal for ‘Back off, our prince is fucking this man’s daughter.’ He is surprised that the Italians have not done it. Though perhaps they have, and he just never caught on.
In the year 1529, my lord cardinal newly disgraced, he will think back to that evening.
He is at Esher; it is the lightless, fireless night, when the great man has gone to his (possibly damp) bed, and there is only George Cavendish to keep his spirits alive. What happened next, he asked George, with Harry Percy and Anne Boleyn?
He knew the story only in the cardinal’s chilly and dismissive rendition. But George said, ‘I shall tell you how it was. Now. Stand up, Master Cromwell.’ He does it. ‘A little to the left. Now, which would you like to be? My lord cardinal, or the young heir?’
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