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Chapter Thirty-one

BARAK AND I SAT IN an alehouse on the corner of Wolf's Lane, almost opposite the Gristwood house. It was a dingy place, where men of the poorer sort sat at battered tables playing cards or talking. A slatternly girl passed wooden tankards of beer through a hatch in the wall. Opposite me, Barak was looking through the open door at the darkening streets.

'Should we not go now?' I asked.

'It's too early. She said they'd not be there till after dark. We don't want to startle them.'

I sat back. Despite my tiredness and aching back, I found myself seized with a new excitement. It was clear Bathsheba knew more than she had indicated at the whorehouse. Now, perhaps, we could find out how much. I took another drink of the watery beer as Barak studied a group of four men playing dice by the opposite wall. He leaned across to me.

'Those dice are loaded. See the gloomy-looking young fellow in the dull clothes? He's new to town, those others have invited him here to cheat him.'

'The City knows countless ways to cheat people. It's nothing to be proud of. The country has more honest ways.'

'Does it?' He looked at me with frank curiosity. 'I've never been there. All the country folk I meet seem dozy clowns.'

'My father has a farm near Lichfield. Country folk aren't stupid. Innocent in some ways, perhaps.'

'Look, he's having to get his purse out now, silly arsehole.' Barak shook his head, then leaned closer. 'Will you see Marchamount again tomorrow? Try to find out what's going on with Lady Honor?'

'Yes, I will. I'll go to Lincoln's Inn first thing.' I had told him reluctantly of the new mystery my conversation on the river had raised, but I realized that where Lady Honor was concerned I needed to sound the opinion of someone whose mind was unclouded by feeling. He had said I must ask Marchamount for the whole story of what was going on between him, Lady Honor and the Duke of Norfolk. I agreed, though with a sinking heart, for I hated the idea of picking her affairs apart with Marchamount again. 'Maybe there'll be some news of Bealknap, too, at last,' I added, for there was still no word of him. At least on my return from the river I had found a note from Guy, saying he was back and I could call on him on the morrow.

At the far table I saw the young man had been persuaded to start another game. I caught a country accent, he was from Essex like Joseph. I thought of Elizabeth languishing in the Hole, a distracted Joseph wondering what I was doing. 'We must go down that well again,' I whispered.

'I know, but it's risky with the dogs.' He frowned. 'I'll put my mind to how it might be done.'

'Thank you, I am grateful.'

'I see those Anabaptists have repented. It's the talk of the streets.'

'Are people disappointed that there won't be a big burning?'

'Some are, but it's a thing many prefer not to see.'

'I have always feared it,' I said. 'When I was first in London as a student it was fashionable to support reform in the Church. Even Thomas More supported it. But then forbidden Lutheran books started to appear and when More was made chancellor the burnings started in earnest. He was a great believer in burning as a purge for sin and to create fear. And it did. The time came when there were few who hadn't been to a burning, if only because it might be noticed if they didn't go.'

'I don't remember much about the days before Lutheranism, I was just a child.' Barak laughed sadly. 'Only the smell of shit my dad brought everywhere with him, making me escape to my schoolwork in the attic. Poor old arsehole, he only wanted to stroke my head.'

'Homework for St Paul's school?'

'Ay. The old monks were all right, but by God they lived well.'

'I know. I went to a monks' school too.'

He shook his head. 'I saw one of my old teachers begging in the gutter a couple of years ago. He looked half-crazed, one of those who couldn't cope with being put out in the world. It was a terrible thing to see.' He looked at me interrogatively. 'And where's it all going now, can you tell me that?'

'No. I fear the endless changes of the last ten years can only have undermined the faith of many.' I was thinking of Lady Honor.

'I never had too much faith.'

'I did once. But it grows less certain every day.'

'Lord Cromwell has faith. And he'd like to help the poor. But all his schemes -' Barak shrugged his broad shoulders – 'between what the king wants and what parliament wants, they never seem to happen.'

'Strange. Lady Honor said something similar this morning.' I looked at him. Again he was showing a different side – reflective and, like many in King Henry's England, puzzled and insecure.

He nodded at the door. 'I think we can go now.' He rose, adjusting the sword at his waist. I followed him out into the night.



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