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Chapter Twenty-seven

THE HOUSE OF GLASS lay quiet and still in the morning heat. A servant in the Vaughan livery answered the door. I asked if I might see Lady Honor on an urgent matter of business and he admitted me, asking me to wait in the hall. Looking through a window into the inner courtyard, I saw the banqueting hall was shuttered against the heat. One of the panes had a family motto under the coat of arms. I bent to look closer. Esse quant videri. To be rather than to seem. To be a truly powerful noble family at the heart of the king's court, as the Howards were and the Vaughans had once been – I wondered what price would Lady Honor pay to achieve that end. In a few hours I would see Cromwell; I had to find out.

The servant reappeared and said Lady Honor would see me. He led me up to a first-floor parlour. Like the rest of the house it was richly decorated, with tapestries on the walls and an abundance of big embroidered cushions on the floors. There was a fine portrait on one wall, an elderly man in Mercers' Company livery. The face above the short white beard had a kindly look despite the formal pose.

Lady Honor sat in a cushioned armchair, dressed in a light blue dress with a square bodice and a square hood, for once free of attendants. She was reading a book that I saw was Tyndale's Obedience of a Christian Man: the book Anne Boleyn had used to help persuade the king to assume the headship of the Church.

Lady Honor stood. 'Ah, Master Shardlake. You will have read Master Tyndale, no doubt.'

I bowed deeply. 'Indeed, my lady. In the days when he was frowned upon.'

Although her tone was friendly, Lady Honor's forehead was drawn in a slight frown even as she smiled. I wondered if she was embarrassed by that sudden kiss two nights before, and afraid I might remind her of it. I felt suddenly conscious of my bent back.

'How do you like Master Tyndale?' I asked.

She shrugged. 'He makes his case well. His interpretation of the biblical passages has some force. Have you read the exchanges between Tyndale and Thomas More? Two great book writers descending to vulgar abuse in refuting each other's views of God.' She shook her head.

'Yes. More would have had Tyndale burned had he not been safe abroad.'

'The Germans burned him in the end. And Tyndale would have burned More if he could. I wonder what God thinks of them all, if he thinks anything.' An angry weariness entered her tone as she placed the book on the table. 'But of course God watches us all, does he not?'

Her slight undertone of sarcasm made me wonder for a moment if Lady Honor might be one of those whose heresy was the most dangerous of all, one that people scarcely dared speak of: those who doubted God's very existence. It was a thought that clawed at the minds of many confronted with the violent religious conflicts of these days; once or twice it had clawed at mine, leaving me feeling as though suspended over a dark chasm.

'Will you sit down?' Lady Honor asked, gesturing to some cushions on the floor. I lowered myself to them gratefully. 'Some wine?'

'Thank you, no, it is rather early.'

She watched as I unhitched my satchel. 'Well,' she said softly, 'what have you brought for me today?'

I hesitated. 'The papers about Greek Fire, my lady. I know nobody else who has seen them, you see. I would welcome your opinion on one or two matters -'

Anger flashed in her eyes, though her tone remained even. 'So you would find out how much I read, how much I understood. I told you two nights ago, enough to make me wish I had kept my curiosity under control and no more.'

'Enough to make you think Greek Fire might be real?'

'Enough to make me fear it might be, given what it could do. Master Shardlake, I have nothing to add. I told you the simple truth.'

I studied her carefully. Two nights ago she had tried to charm me into believing her, today she was hostile and angry at my questions. Was that because she had truly told me all?

'Lady Honor,' I said, choosing my words carefully, 'I have to make a report to Lord Cromwell this afternoon. I have not got as far as I would like in my enquiries, not least because the founder who aided the Gristwoods in their work has disappeared and has probably been killed. Attempts have also been made on my life.'

She took a deep breath. 'Then all who were involved in the matter are in danger?'

'Those who helped the Gristwoods in their work.'

'Am I in danger?' She tried to keep her composure, but a nerve flickered under her eye.

'I do not believe so. So long as you have truly told nobody but me that you looked in those papers.'

'Nobody.' She took a deep breath. 'And the earl? If you tell him I looked in those papers, he may seek to try my testimony with rougher methods than yours.'

'That is partly why I came this morning so I can make the fullest report to him. Lady Honor, the night I came upon you at that bench at Lincoln's Inn I saw you talking to Serjeant Marchamount. You both looked as though you were discussing something serious.'

'Are you spying on me, then?' she asked angrily.

'I came on you accidentally but yes, I paused and hid to find out what I could hear. I confess it. I caught no words though, I only saw your faces. You both looked worried. As you did when you talked together after the banquet. And the serjeant too had custody of those papers.'

I braced myself for anger, but she only sighed and lowered her head, screening it with an upraised hand. 'Jesu,' she said quietly, 'where have I brought myself with my foolish curiosity?'

'Only tell me everything,' I said. 'I would help you with the earl if I could.'

She looked up then, and smiled sadly. 'Yes, I believe so, for all that you are sent after me like a hunter. I see it in your face. You do not like this work, do you?'

'What I like is neither here nor there, Lady Honor. I must ask what you and the serjeant were talking about.'

She got up and went to the buffet, where a fine gold cup was prominent. 'Gabriel Marchamount gave me this, it is a gift. He advises the Mercers' Company, you know; he used to advise my husband and now he is gone Gabriel advises me on the many legal matters I have to deal with.' She took another deep breath. 'He has been, shall we say, attentive.'

'Ah.' I felt myself redden.

'He has indicated more than once that he would like to take my husband's place.'

'I see. He loves you.'

She surprised me with a sudden mocking laugh. 'Loves me? Master Shardlake, surely you have heard of Gabriel's attempts to persuade the College of Heralds to provide him with a coat of arms, though his father was a fishmonger? He can bring no proof of noble birth and is not sufficiently elevated to get the king to intervene with them. His attempts have failed. But he wants more than anything to have a son who one day can say he is of noble birth. He lusts after nobility as a pig lusts after truffles. So now he is looking for another way to get it. He would like to marry into a noble family.'

'I see.'

Her face was red now too, with embarrassment and anger. I felt ashamed.

'But truly, Master Shardlake, there are some who are not fit to rise above their station and Marchamount is one.' Her voice trembled. 'He is an ambitious boor under all his smoothness. I have refused him, but he will not give up his designs. Oh, he is full of plans.' She lowered her head a moment, then returned her gaze to me, her eyes bright. 'But I have never mentioned looking at the Greek Fire papers to him. I would not be such a fool. And he has never mentioned them to me.' The nerve in her face trembled again and she turned to the window, looking across the courtyard to the banqueting hall. I half-rose, then sat down again. I was ashamed of humiliating her, but there remained another question I must ask.

'I overheard something else at the banquet, Lady Honor. The Duke of Norfolk muttered to Marchamount that there was something he would have you do, but that you would not.'

She did not turn round. 'The Duke of Norfolk covets land, Master Shardlake. He would be the greatest landowner in the realm. My family still has some left and the duke would have part of it in return for advancing my cousin at court. But I have advised Henry's father not to give away what little we have left, whatever advance Norfolk might seem to promise. Henry is not cut out for the role of saviour of our family.'

I stared at her rigid back. 'I am truly sorry to expose these private sorrows,' I said.

She turned round then and to my relief she was smiling, if ironically, making those engaging dimples at the corners of her mouth that showed her age and yet were somehow charming.

'Yes, I believe you are. You have done your work well, Master Shardlake. Some charged with the task you have been given might have come here bullying and blustering, and perhaps I would not have told them all I have told you.' She thought a moment, then crossed to the little table and picked up a Bible. 'Here, take this.'

Puzzled, I rose and took the heavy book. She laid her hand on it, the long fingers pressed flat against the leather cover, and looked me in the face. Close to, I saw she had the lightest of down on her upper lip, making a momentary flash of gold as it caught the light.

'I swear by Almighty God,' she said, 'that I have never discussed the contents of the papers relating to Greek Fire with any living soul other than you.'

'And the duke has made no request to you to do so?'

She met my eyes firmly. 'I swear he has not.' She took a deep breath. 'Will you tell the earl that I made this oath freely and of my own will?'

'I will,' I said.

'And though you must tell him everything, I ask you to keep these – these difficulties with Gabriel and the duke secret.'

'I will, my lady. I know the reputation lawyers have as gossips, but I promise to tell no one but the earl.'

She smiled, her old warm smile. 'Then we may be friends again?'

'I would like nothing better, my lady.'

'Good. You caught me in an ill humour earlier.' She-nodded at the gold cup. 'That arrived, together with an invitation to the bear-baiting tomorrow. Gabriel is making a party of it and I feel obliged to go.' She paused. 'Would you care to come as well? He said to bring whoever I chose.'

I inclined my head. 'Would you really wish me to come? After my interrogation of you?'

'Yes. To prove there is no ill feeling?' Her look had something flirtatious in it again.

'I will come, Lady Honor, with pleasure.'

'Good. We meet at noon, at Three Cranes-'

Lady Honor broke off as the door opened and her young nephew came in. His face was red and angry. He was dressed for company, a purple slashed doublet and a wide cap with a peacock feather. He took off his cap and threw it on the cabinet.

'Cousin Honor,' he said petulantly, 'please do not send me to such people again.' He broke off as he saw me sitting on the cushion. 'I am sorry, sir, I did not mean to intrude.'

Lady Honor took the boy by the arm. 'Master Shardlake has called for a brief visit, Henry. Now come, settle yourself. Have some wine.'

The youth plumped down on a cushion opposite me as

Lady Honor fetched him wine. She gestured me to sit again.

'Henry has been visiting Mayor Hollyes's family,' she told

me. 'I thought it would be useful for him to meet his children.' She gave him a goblet of wine and returned to her chair, smiling at him encouragingly. 'Well then, Henry, what has happened?'

'Those children are common rogues.' The boy took a long draught of wine. 'By God they are.'

'The mayor's daughters? What on earth do you mean?'

'I had looked forward to meeting the girls, I heard they were pretty. There are three of them. Mayor Hollyes's wife was there and the conversation was pleasant enough at first – they asked about life in Lincolnshire, the hunting. But then Madam Hollyes was called away and I was left with the girls. Then they-'

'What, Henry? Come.'

He looked down at the floor, running a hand over the pustules on his face. 'The moment the old woman left the girls became cruel. They – they began to mock my – my spots, asking if I had the pox. One said even a pocky whore would not have me.' His voice shook. 'Cousin Honor, I hate it in London. I want to go back to Lincolnshire.' He hung his head again, greasy hair falling over his face.

'Henry,' Lady Honor said with a touch of impatience, 'these things happen. You must be more robust-'

'They should not happen!' he burst out. 'I am a Vaughan, I am entitled to some respect.'

'It is a cruel thing to be mocked,' I said.

Lady Honor sighed. 'Go upstairs to your room, Henry. I will come and talk to you in a moment.'

Without a word the boy got up and, without looking at me, went out and slammed the door behind him. Lady Honor leaned back in her chair and smiled sadly.

'You can see now why I fear Henry does not have the robustness to make his way in London. It was a mistake to bring him here. But he is the Vaughan heir. We had to try.' She sighed. 'Poor boy.'

'Some boys feel slights greatly at that age. I did.'

'Young girls can be cruel.' She smiled ironically. 'I could, myself.'

'You, madam? I find that hard to be believe.'

'You know how girl children are told how to behave down to the last detail? How to walk, how to sit, when to smile.' She smiled sadly. 'I wonder how many scream with frustration inside, as I did. And how many turn to cruel thoughts beneath sweet rosy faces?'

'It takes a woman to understand such things.'

'I shall send Henry back. There is another Vaughan cousin. He is young, but perhaps in a few years -'

I rose, conscious time was passing. 'I fear I must go.' I was reluctant to leave her, glad my questioning had not broken the beginning of friendship, but I wanted to get Guy's opinion on those books before I saw Cromwell.

'And I must try to console Henry. I will see you out.' Lady Honor led me downstairs.

In the hall I turned to her. 'I am sorry for your troubles,' I said again. 'And for raking them up.'

She laid a hand lightly on my arm. 'You were doing your duty even though it was uncomfortable. I admire that.' She studied me. 'But you look tired. You are meant for finer, gentler things than work like this. You demean yourself, Matthew.'

'I have no choice.'

'For now, perhaps.' She took my hand. 'Until tomorrow. Remember, Three Cranes Wharf at noon.'

As I walked to the stables to fetch Genesis, I felt warmed and soothed by her care. Yet still my sceptical brain worried away at the thought she might only want to keep me on her side in my dealings with Cromwell. She had sworn on the Bible, but the dark thought that she might be an atheist returned to me. To such a person, a Bible oath would mean nothing.

Chapter Twenty-six | Dark Fire | Chapter Twenty-eight