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Prophecy: A Thrillerby S J Parris
Barn Elms, House of
Sir Francis Walsingham.
21st September, Year of Our Lord 1583
The wedding feast of Sir Philip Sidney and Frances Walsingham threatens to spill over into the next day; dusk has fallen, lamps have been lit, and above the din from the musicians in the gallery and the laughter of the guests, the young woman with whom I have been dancing tells me excitedly that she was once at a marriage party that lasted four days altogether. She leans in close when she says this and presses her hand to my shoulder; her breath is laced with sweet wine. The musicians strike up another galliard; my dancing partner exclaims with delight and clutches eagerly at my hand, laughing. I am about to protest that the hall is warm, that I would like a cup of wine and a moment’s respite in the fresh air before I return to the fray, but I have barely opened my mouth when the wind is knocked out of me by a fist between the shoulder blades, accompanied by a hearty cry.
“Giordano Bruno! Now what is this I see? The great philosopher throwing off his scholar’s gown and lifting a leg with the flower of Her Majesty’s court? Did you learn to dance like that at the monastery? Your hidden talents never cease to astonish me, amico mio.”
Recovering my balance, I turn, smiling widely. Here is the bridegroom in all his finery, six feet tall and flushed with wine and triumph: breeches of copper-coloured silk so voluminous it is a wonder he can pass through a doorway; doublet of ivory sewn all over with seed pearls; a lace ruff at his neck so severely starched that his handsome, beardless face seems constantly straining to see above it, like a small boy peering over a wall. His hair still sticks up in the front like a schoolboy hastened out of bed. In all the tumult I have not exchanged a word with him since the morning’s ceremony, he and his young bride have been so comprehensively surrounded by high- ranking well-wishers and relatives, all the highest ornaments of Her Majesty’s court.
“Well,” he says, grinning broadly, “aren’t you going to congratulate me, then, or are you just here for the food from my table?”
“Your father-in-law’s table, I had thought,” I answer, laughing. “Or which part of the feast did you buy yourself?”
“You can leave your debating-hall pedantry at home today, Bruno. But I hope you have had enough meat and drink?”
“There is enough meat and drink here to feed the five thousand.” I indicate the two long tables at each end of the great hall, spread with the detritus of the wedding banquet. “You will be eating leftovers for weeks.”
“Oh, you may be sure Sir Francis will see to that,” Sidney says. “Today, generosity; tomorrow—thrift. But come, Bruno. You have no idea how it pleases me that you are here.” He holds his arms wide and I embrace him with sincere affection; I am the perfect height to have his ruff smack me directly in the nose.
“Watch the clothes,” he says, only half joking. “Bruno, allow me to introduce you to my uncle Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester.”
He steps back and gestures to the man who stands a few feet away, at his shoulder; a man of about Sidney’s own height, perhaps in his mid- fifties but still athletic, his hair steel grey at the temples but his face fine-boned and handsome behind his close-clipped beard. This man regards me with watchful brown eyes.
I bow deeply, acknowledging the honour; the Earl of Leicester is one of the highest nobles in England and the man who enjoys greater influence over Queen Elizabeth than any alive. I raise my head and meet his shrewd appraisal. It is rumoured that in their youth he was the queen’s only lover, and that even now their long-enduring friendship is more intimate than most marriages. He smiles, and there is warmth in his gaze.
“Doctor Bruno, the pleasure is mine. When I learned of your courage in Oxford I was eager to make your acquaintance and thank you in person.” Here he lowers his voice; Leicester is the chancellor of the University of Oxford, charged with enforcing the measures to suppress the Catholic resistance among the students. That the movement had gathered so much momentum on his watch had been a matter of some embarrassment to him; my adventures with Sidney there in the spring had helped to disarm it, at least temporarily. I am about to reply when we are interrupted by a man dressed in a russet doublet, with a peasecod belly so vast it makes him look as if he is with child; the earl nods politely to me and I turn back to Sidney.
“My uncle likes the idea of you. He’s keen to hear more of your outrageous theories about the universe.” I must look anxious, because he elbows me cheerfully in the ribs. “Leicester’s friendship is worth a great deal.”
“I am glad to have met him,” I say, rubbing my side. “And may I now pay my respects to your bride?”
Sidney looks around, as if for someone to deal with this request.
“I daresay she is around somewhere. Giggling with her ladies.” He does not sound as if he is in a hurry to find her. “But you are needed elsewhere.”
He turns and bows to my companion, who has discreetly withdrawn a couple of paces to watch us from under lowered lids, her hands modestly clasped together. “I am borrowing the great Doctor Bruno for a moment. I will return him to you at some stage. There will be more dancing after the masques.” The girl blushes, smiles shyly at me, and obediently melts away into the brightly coloured, rustling mass of guests. Sidney looks after her with an expression of amusement. “Lady Arabella Horton has her sights set on you, it seems. Don’t be fooled by all the fluttering lashes and simpering. Half the court has been there. And she will soon lose interest when she learns you are the son of a soldier, with no capital but your wit and a pittance from the King of France.”
“I was not planning to tell her that immediately.”
“Did you tell her you were a monk for thirteen years?”
“We had not got around to that, either.”
“She might like that—might want to help you make up for lost time. But for now, Bruno, my new father-in-law suggests you might like to take a turn in the garden.”
“I have not yet had the chance to congratulate him.”
But it is clear that this is business. Sidney rests a hand on my shoulder.
“No one has. Do you know, he disappeared for two hours altogether this afternoon to draft some papers? In the middle of his own daughter’s wedding party?” He smiles indulgently, as if he must tolerate these foibles, though we both know that Sidney is in no position to complain; financially, he needed this marriage more than young Mistress Walsingham, who I suspect entertains greater romantic hopes of it than her new husband.
“I suppose the great machinery of state must keep turning.”
“Indeed. And now it is your turn to grease the wheels. Go to him. I shall find you later.”
On all sides we are pressed by those who wish to congratulate the bridegroom; they jostle, aggressively smiling and attempting to shake his hand. In the mêlée I slip away toward the door.
Outside, the night air is hard-edged with the first frost of autumn and the grounds are quiet, a welcome relief from the celebrations inside. In the knot garden close to the house, lanterns have been lit and couples walk the neatly cultivated paths, murmuring, their heads close together. Even in the shadows, I can see that Sir Francis Walsingham is not to be found here. Stretching my arms, I strain my head back to gaze up at the sky, the constellations picked out in bright silver against the ink-blue of the heavens, their arrangement different here from the sky above Naples where I first learned the star patterns as a boy.
I reach the end of the path and still there is no sign of him, so I set off across the open expanse of lawn, away from the lit paths, toward an area of woodland that borders the cultivated part of the garden at the back of Walsingham’s country house. As I walk, a lean shape gathers substance out of the shadows and falls into step beside me. He seems made of the night; I have never seen Walsingham wear any suit other than black, not even today, at his daughter’s wedding, and he still wears his close-fitting black velvet skullcap, which makes his face yet more severe. He is past fifty now and I have heard he has been ill this last month—one of the protracted bouts of illness that confines him to his bed for days at a time, though if you enquire after his health he swats the question away with a flick of his hand, as if he hasn’t the time to consider such trifles. This man, Queen Elizabeth Tudor’s principal secretary of state, though he may not seem an imposing figure at first glance, holds the security of England in his hands. Walsingham has created a network of spies and informers that stretches across Europe to the land of the Turks in the east and the colonies of the New World in the west, and the intelligence they bring him is the queen’s first line of defence against the myriad Catholic plots to take her life. More remarkably still, he seems to hold all this intelligence in his own mind, and can pluck any information he requires at will.
I had arrived in England six months earlier, at the beginning of spring, sent by my patron King Henri III of France to stay for a while with his ambassador in London in order to spare me the attentions of the Catholic extremists who were gathering support in Paris, led by the Duke of Guise. I had barely been in England a fortnight when Walsingham asked to meet me, my long-standing enmity with Rome and my privileged position as a houseguest at the French embassy making me ideally suited to his purposes. Over the past months, Walsingham is a man I have grown to respect deeply and fear a little.
But his cheeks are hollowed out since I last saw him. He folds his hands now behind his back; the noise of the celebrations grows fainter as we move away from the house.
“Congratulazioni, Your Honour.”
“Grazie, Bruno. I trust you are making the most of the celebrations?”
When he converses alone with me, he speaks Italian, partly I think to put me at ease, and partly because he wants to be sure I do not miss any vital point—his diplomat’s Italian being superior to the English I learned largely from merchants and soldiers on my travels.
“Out of curiosity—where did you learn our English dances?” he adds, turning to me.
“I largely make them up as I go along. I find if one steps out confidently enough, people will assume you know what you are doing.”
He laughs, that deep rolling bear laugh that comes so rarely from his chest.
“That is your motto in everything, is it not, Bruno? How else does a man rise from fugitive monk to personal tutor to the King of France? Speaking of France”—he keeps his voice light—“how does your host, the ambassador?”
“Castelnau is in good spirits now that his wife and daughter are newly returned from Paris.”
“Hm. I have not met Madame de Castelnau. They say she is very beautiful. No wonder the old dog always looks so hearty.”
“Beautiful, yes. I have not spoken to her at any length. I am told she is a most pious daughter of the Catholic church.”
“I hear the same. Then we must watch her influence over her husband.” His eyes narrow. We have reached the trees, and he gestures for me to follow him into their shadows. “I had thought Michel de Castelnau shared the French king’s preference for diplomatic dealings with En- gland—so he claims when he has audience with me, anyway. But lately that fanatic the Duke of Guise and his Catholic Leaguers are gaining strength in the French court, and in your letter last week you told me that Guise is sending money to Mary of Scotland through the French embassy?.?.?.” He pauses to master his anger, quietly striking his fist into the palm of his hand. “And what need has Mary Stuart of Guise money, hm? She is more than generously provided for in Sheffield Castle, considering she is our prisoner.”
“To secure the loyalty of her friends?” I suggest. “To pay her couriers?”
“Precisely, Bruno! All this summer I have laboured to bring the two queens to a point where they are prepared to hold talks face-to-face, perhaps negotiate a treaty. Queen Elizabeth would like nothing better than to give her cousin Mary her liberty, so long as she will renounce all claim to the English throne. For her part, I am led to believe that Mary tires of imprisonment and is ready to swear to anything. That is why this traffic of letters and gifts from her supporters in France through the embassy troubles me so deeply. Is she double-dealing with me?”
He glares at me as if he expects an answer, but before I can open my mouth, he continues, as if to himself: “And who are these couriers? I have the diplomatic packet intercepted and searched every week—she must have another means of delivery for her private letters.” He shakes his head briskly. “While she lives, Mary Stuart is a banner to rally England’s Catholics, and all those in Europe who hope to see a papist monarch back on our throne. But Her Majesty will not move preemptively against her cousin, though the Privy Council urges her to see the danger. This is why your presence in the French embassy is more crucial to me than ever, Bruno. I need to see every communication between Mary and France that passes through Castelnau’s hands. If she is plotting against the queen’s sovereignty again, I must have hard evidence that incriminates her this time. Can you see to it?”
“I have befriended the ambassador’s clerk, Your Honour. For the right price, he says he can give us access to every letter Castelnau writes and receives, if you will guarantee that the documents will bear no evidence of tampering. He is greatly afraid of being discovered—he craves assurances of Your Honour’s protection.”
“Good man. Give him all the assurances he needs.” He clasps my shoulder for a moment. “If he will obtain for us an example of the ambassador’s seal, I will set my man Thomas Phelippes to create a forgery. There is no man in England more skilled in the arts of interception. In the circumstances, Bruno, I do not think it prudent that you should be seen so much with Sidney,” he adds. “Now that he is so publicly tied to me. Castelnau must not doubt your loyalty to France for a moment.”
From the Hardcover edition.
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