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‘My lord will be pleased to know.’ To himself he says, as he moves away, you may never think of us, Mark, but we think of you. Or at least I do, I think of you calling me a felon and predicting my death. It is true that the cardinal always says, there are no safe places, there are no sealed rooms, you may as well stand on Cheapside shouting out your sins as confess to a priest anywhere in England. But when I spoke to the cardinal of killing, when I saw a shadow on the wall, there was no one to hear; so if Mark reckons I’m a murderer, that’s only because he thinks I look like one.
Eight anterooms: in the last, where the cardinal should be, he finds Anne Boleyn. Look, there are Solomon and Sheba, unrolled again, back on the wall. There is a draught; Sheba eddies towards him, rosy, round, and he acknowledges her: Anselma, lady made of wool, I thought I’d never see you again.
He had sent word back to Antwerp, applied discreetly for news; Anselma was married, Stephen Vaughan said, and to a younger man, a banker. So if he drowns or anything, he said, let me know. Vaughan writes back: Thomas, come now, isn’t England full of widows? And fresh young girls?
Sheba makes Anne look bad: sallow and sharp. She stands by the window, her fingers tugging and ripping at a sprig of rosemary. When she sees him, she drops it, and her hands dip back into her trailing sleeves.
In December, the king gave a banquet, to celebrate her father’s elevation to be Earl of Wiltshire. The queen was elsewhere, and Anne sat where Katherine should sit. There was frost on the ground, frost in the atmosphere. They only heard of it, in the Wolsey household. The Duchess of Norfolk (who is always furious about something) was furious that her niece should have precedence. The Duchess of Suffolk, Henry’s sister, refused to eat. Neither of these great ladies spoke to Boleyn’s daughter. Nevertheless, Anne had taken her place as the first lady of the kingdom.
But now it’s the end of Lent, and Henry has gone back to his wife; he hasn’t the face to be with his concubine as we move towards the week of Christ’s Passion. Her father is abroad, on diplomatic business; so is her brother George, now Lord Rochford; so is Thomas Wyatt, the poet whom she tortures. She’s alone and bored at York Place; and she’s reduced to sending for Thomas Cromwell, to see if he offers any amusement.
A flurry of little dogs – three of them – run away from her skirts, yapping, darting towards him. ‘Don’t let them out,’ Anne says, and with practised and gentle hands he scoops them up – they are the kind of dogs, Bellas, with ragged ears and tiny wafting tails, that any merchant’s wife would keep, across the Narrow Sea. By the time he has given them back to her, they have nibbled his fingers and his coat, licked his face and yearned towards him with goggling eyes: as if he were someone they had so much longed to meet.
Two of them he sets gently on the floor; the smallest he hands back to Anne. ‘Vous êtes gentil,’ she says, ‘and how my babies like you! I could not love, you know, those apes that Katherine keeps. Les singes enchaînés. Their little hands, their little necks fettered. My babies love me for myself.’
She’s so small. Her bones are so delicate, her waist so narrow; if two law students make one cardinal, two Annes make one Katherine. Various women are sitting on low stools, sewing or rather pretending to sew. One of them is Mary Boleyn. She keeps her head down, as well she might. One of them is Mary Shelton, a bold pink-and-white Boleyn cousin, who looks him over, and – quite obviously – says to herself, Mother of God, is that the best Lady Carey thought she could get? Back in the shadows there is another girl, who has her face turned away, trying to hide. He does not know who she is, but he understands why she’s looking fixedly at the floor. Anne seems to inspire it; now that he’s put the dogs down, he’s doing the same thing.
‘Alors,’ Anne says softly, ‘suddenly, everything is about you. The king does not cease to quote Master Cromwell.’ She pronounces it as if she can’t manage the English: Cremuel. ‘He is so right, he is at all points correct … Also, let us not forget, Maître Cremuel makes us laugh.’
‘I see the king does sometimes laugh. But you, madame? In your situation? As you find yourself?’
A black glance, over her shoulder. ‘I suppose I seldom. Laugh. If I think. But I had not thought.’
‘This is what your life has come to.’
Dusty fragments, dried leaves and stems, have fallen down her skirts. She stares out at the morning.
‘Let me put it this way,’ he says. ‘Since my lord cardinal was reduced, how much progress have you seen in your cause?’
‘No one knows the workings of Christian countries like my lord cardinal. No one is more intimate with kings. Think how bound to you he would be, Lady Anne, if you were the means of erasing these misunderstandings and restoring him to the king’s grace.’
She doesn’t answer.
‘Think,’ he says. ‘He is the only man in England who can obtain for you what you need.’
‘Very well. Make his case. You have five minutes.’
‘Otherwise, I can see you’re really busy.’
Anne looks at him with dislike, and speaks in French. ‘What do you know of how I occupy my hours?’
‘My lady, are we having this conversation in English or French? Your choice entirely. But let’s make it one or the other, yes?’
He sees a movement from the corner of his eye; the half-hidden girl has raised her face. She is plain and pale; she looks shocked.
‘You are indifferent?’ Anne says.
‘Very well. In French.’
He tells her again: the cardinal is the only man who can deliver a good verdict from the Pope. He is the only man who can deliver the king’s conscience, and deliver it clean.
She listens. He will say that for her. He has always wondered how well women can hear, beneath the muffling folds of their veils and hoods, but Anne does give the impression that she is hearing what he has said. She waits him out, at least; she doesn’t interrupt, until at last she does: so, she says, if the king wants it, and the cardinal wants it, he who was formerly the chief subject in the kingdom, then I must say, Master Cremuel, it is all taking a marvellous long while to come to pass!
From her corner her sister adds, barely audible, ‘And she’s not getting any younger.’
Not a stitch have the women added to their sewing since he has been in the room.
‘One may resume?’ he asks, persuading her. ‘There is a moment left?’
‘Oh yes,’ Anne says. ‘But a moment only: in Lent I ration my patience.’
He tells her to dismiss the slanderers who claim that the cardinal obstructed her cause. He tells her how it distresses the cardinal that the king should not have his heart’s desire, which was ever the cardinal’s desire too. He tells her how all the king’s subjects repose their hopes in her, for an heir to the throne; and how he is sure they are right to do so. He reminds her of the many gracious letters she has written to the cardinal in times past: all of which he has on file.
‘Very nice,’ she says, when he stops. ‘Very nice, Master Cremuel, but try again. One thing. One simple thing we asked of the cardinal, and he would not. One simple thing.’
‘You know it was not simple.’
‘Perhaps I am a simple person,’ Anne says. ‘Do you feel I am?’
‘You may be. I hardly know you.’
The reply incenses her. He sees her sister smirk. You may go, Anne says: and Mary jumps up, and follows him out.
Once again Mary’s cheeks are flushed, her lips are parted. She’s brought her sewing with her, which he thinks is strange; but perhaps, if she leaves it behind, Anne pulls the stitches out. ‘Out of breath again, Lady Carey?’
‘We thought she might run up and slap you. Will you come again? Shelton and I can’t wait.’
‘She can stand it,’ he says, and Mary says, indeed, she likes a skirmish with someone on her own level. What are you working there? he asks, and she shows him. It is Anne’s new coat of arms. On everything, I suppose, he says, and she smiles broadly, oh yes, her petticoats, her handkerchiefs, her coifs and her veils; she has garments that no one ever wore before, just so she can have her arms sewn on, not to mention the wall hangings, the table napkins …
‘And how are you?’
She looks down, glance swivelling away from him. ‘Worn down. Frayed a little, you might say. Christmas was …’
‘They quarrelled. So one hears.’
‘First he quarrelled with Katherine. Then he came here for sympathy. Anne said, what! I told you not to argue with Katherine, you know you always lose. If he were not a king,’ she says with relish, ‘one could pity him. For the dog’s life they lead him.’
‘There have been rumours that Anne –’
‘Yes, but she’s not. I would be the first to know. If she thickened by an inch, it would be me who let out her clothes. Besides, she can’t, because they don’t. They haven’t.’
‘She’d tell you?’
‘Of course – out of spite!’ Still Mary will not meet his eyes. But she seems to feel she owes him information. ‘When they are alone, she lets him unlace her bodice.’
‘At least he doesn’t call you to do it.’
‘He pulls down her shift and kisses her breasts.’
‘Good man if he can find them.’
Mary laughs; a boisterous, unsisterly laugh. It must be audible within, because almost at once the door opens and the small hiding girl manoeuvres herself around it. Her face is grave, her reserve complete; her skin is so fine that it is almost translucent. ‘Lady Carey,’ she says, ‘Lady Anne wants you.’
She speaks their names as if she is making introductions between two cockroaches.
Mary snaps, oh, by the saints! and turns on her heel, whipping her train behind her with the ease of long practice.
To his surprise, the small pale girl catches his glance; behind the retreating back of Mary Boleyn, she raises her own eyes to Heaven.
Walking away – eight antechambers back to the rest of his day – he knows that Anne has stepped forward to a place where he can see her, the morning light lying along the curve of her throat. He sees the thin arch of her eyebrow, her smile, the turn of her head on her long slender neck. He sees her speed, intelligence and rigour. He didn’t think she would help the cardinal, but what do you lose by asking? He thinks, it is the first proposition I have put to her; probably not the last.
There was a moment when Anne gave him all her attention: her skewering dark glance. The king, too, knows how to look; blue eyes, their mildness deceptive. Is this how they look at each other? Or in some other way? For a second he understands it; then he doesn’t. He stands by a window. A flock of starlings settles among the tight black buds of a bare tree. Then, like black buds unfolding, they open their wings; they flutter and sing, stirring everything into motion, air, wings, black notes in music. He becomes aware that he is watching them with pleasure: that something almost extinct, some small gesture towards the future, is ready to welcome the spring; in some spare, desperate way, he is looking forward to Easter, the end of Lenten fasting, the end of penitence. There is a world beyond this black world. There is a world of the possible. A world where Anne can be queen is a world where Cromwell can be Cromwell. He sees it; then he doesn’t. The moment is fleeting. But insight cannot be taken back. You cannot return to the moment you were in before.
In Lent, there are butchers who will sell you red meat, if you know where to go. At Austin Friars he goes down to talk to his kitchen staff, and says to his chief man, ‘The cardinal is sick, he is dispensed from Lent.’
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