'If you want to know that, you must put on a gown, and take up your needlework, and come and join us.'
'Like Achilles among the women,' the king says. 'You must shave your fine beard, Seymour, and go and find out their lewd little secrets.' He is laughing, but he is not happy. 'Unless we find someone more maidenly for the task. Gregory, you are a pretty fellow, but I fear your great hands will give you away.'
'The blacksmith's grandson,' Weston says.
'That child Mark,' the king says. 'The musician, you know him? There is a smooth girlish countenance.'
'Oh,' Jane says, 'Mark's with us anyway. He's always loitering. We barely count him a man. If you want to know our secrets, ask Mark.'
The conversation canters off in some other direction; he thinks, I have never known Jane have anything to say for herself; he thinks, Weston is goading me, he knows that in Henry's presence I will not give him a check; he imagines what form the check may take, when he delivers it. Rafe Sadler looks at him out of the tail of his eye.
'So,' the king says to him, 'how will tomorrow be better than today?' To the supper table he explains, 'Master Cromwell cannot sleep unless he is amending something.'
'I will reform the conduct of Your Majesty's hat. And those clouds, before noon '
'We wanted the shower. The rain cooled us.'
'God send Your Majesty no worse a drenching,' says Edward Seymour.
Henry rubs his stripe of sunburn. 'The cardinal, he reckoned he could change the weather. A good enough morning, he would say, but by ten it will be brighter. And it was.'
Henry does this sometimes; drops Wolsey's name into conversation, as if it were not he, but some other monarch, who had hounded the cardinal to death.
'Some men have a weather eye,' Tom Seymour says. 'That's all it is, sir. It's not special to cardinals.'
Henry nods, smiling. 'That's true, Tom. I should never have stood in awe of him, should I?'
'He was too proud, for a subject,' old Sir John says.
The king looks down the table at him, Thomas Cromwell. He loved the cardinal. Everyone here knows it. His expression is as carefully blank as a freshly painted wall.
After supper, old Sir John tells the story of Edgar the Peaceable. He was the ruler in these parts, many hundreds of years ago, before kings had numbers: when all maids were fair maids and all knights were gallant and life was simple and violent and usually brief. Edgar had in mind a bride for himself, and sent one of his earls to appraise her. The earl, who was both false and cunning, sent back word that her beauty had been much exaggerated by poets and painters; seen in real life, he said, she had a limp and a squint. His aim was to have the tender damsel for himself, and so he seduced and married her. Upon discovering the earl's treachery Edgar ambushed him, in a grove not far from here, and rammed a javelin into him, killing him with one blow.
'What a false knave he was, that earl!' says the king. 'He was paid out.'
'Call him rather a churl than an earl,' Tom Seymour says.
His brother sighs, as if distancing himself from the remark.
'And what did the lady say?' he asks; he, Cromwell. 'When she found the earl skewered?'
'The damsel married Edgar,' Sir John says. 'They married in the greenwood, and lived happily ever after.'
'I suppose she had no choice,' Lady Margery sighs. 'Women have to adapt themselves.'
'And the country folk say,' Sir John adds, 'that the false earl walks the woods still, groaning, and trying to pull the lance out of his belly.'
Copyright © 2012 by Hilary Mantel
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No Man's Land
by Simon Tolkien
Inspired by the experiences of his grandfather, J. R. R. Tolkien, during World War I.
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