Midsummer. The Palace of Whitehall. The Lady Catherine’s time is drawing near.
Scarlet-faced, jowly, not at his ease, the Chief Minister sweats. Catch him on a good day – a hog roast with his peasants in the Cotswolds; a tournament of tumblers down at Stratford-le-Bow – and Thomas Cromeron will pump your hand, stand you a flagon of ale and jest as if he wore the cap-and-bells.
Today is not a good day. When his mood darkens like thunder over his grace-and-favour manor in the Chilterns, he will curse like a fishwife and strike like an adder. Ask the trembling minions who dance attendance on his rage in the chilly anterooms of the Low Countries. There the grim Electress Angela of Brandenburg and sly King Francis of the French whisper in torchlight against his mischief-making island. Then his basilisk glare will knock you flat. Better to catch him sleek and unctuous, say at a treaty-making parley in the Irish lands, where he will outfox the sottish envoys and curry favour with the Emperor Barack (smart casual; jerkins open; crowns will not be worn).
The Master Treasurer, watching like a famished falcon, speaks. George, the Viscount Osborne, sharp and secret as a dagger in a doublet – the spit of his master in ambition, and his overlord in guile.
“Be glad, Master Secretary. Days of rejoicing. The succession assured. Feel-good factor, as the criers have it. A Baby Bounce. A little prince or princess for my Lady Kate, to warm the hearts of a land of empty purses and take the people’s minds off penury. Lane parties. All-star jousts with a groatsworth of free wagers. Kill the fat sow and turn her, crackling, on the spit. Double happy hour on ale and sack. You know the sort of thing.”
“Penury, George, eh? And pray, why would that be?”
“Thomas, contemplate the upside. Heaven showers the boon of fruitfulness on our beloved duchess. A sign of favour for your wise stewardship. Have it preached from the pulpits and printed on the broadsides. My Lord Cromeron’s guidance has made the land fertile again. Remind the folk of poor Cardinal Brownsey.” He sniggers. “Years of failed crops and barren wombs. Rivers dried. The barley shrivelled in the field. Ewes birthed monstrosities. Well shot of him, and his conspiring clan of prating Scots and scheming ragged gentry from the North. And now, a little miracle.”
“So you say, George. I have no quarrel with the Lady Kate. No more with Will of Wales.” Yet at the mention of his ill-starred forerunner, the Chief Minister pales from Lancaster crimson to York white. Once the Cardinal strode like a giant through the land. Or like a god. He taxed the wolfish merchants and money-lenders of Cheapside but turned a blind eye to their cheating ways. And he scattered sovereigns on the poor. Where are his palaces and titles now? The tavern curs howl at his very name.
“But the family, George – the family. Those risen men and upstart wives that stand in shadows behind the Lady Kate. Peddlers of sundries for carousing. Banquet-planning. Service on the public carts. ‘Secure the harness, carriage doors to manual.’ All of that. My Lady Philippa has put her name to a merry-making chapbook, Celebration. Yes, at whose funeral? Their fate, my fate. If they fall …”
“Thomas, do not mope. The new heir shall adorn your own escutcheon. Order and plenty after the Cardinal’s orgy of squander. Riddance to him. Even the Exchequer blooms. I have brought the spendthrift houses of health and pilgrimage to heel. The Prior of Barts will swing from the roofbeam of his own hospice. The Abbott of St Thomas’s will crawl through the dust to pay homage at your feet. Smash their dispensaries. Sell their infirmaries. Your loyal nobles will profit from their loss.”
“But the people still love them, George. Break the most flea-ridden shrine of the Sacred A&E and the prentices will riot in the lanes. The low sort flock to houses of healing for their gratis remedies.”
“Slaves of charity, Thomas. They sicken because they are fat and lazy. All shall kiss the blade of my austerity. Meantime, let this auspicious infant turn their heads away from what I plan.”
“George, your soul is ice. Sometimes you frighten even me. Prince, princess – I give thanks for the heir.”
In truth, the Minister fears the baby and its bounce. Princes and princesses, dukes and duchesses, however short their line and low their birth: they make him squirm. His own father broke stocks for a crust. For all his estates and his offices, his mansion up in Bucks and his fine house across the way in Westminster, he could broke a stock himself if hunger drove. Then a memory of shame makes him wince. A lad of many parts but few prospects, he earned his keep as a barker for the fairs. The freak-shows, the jesters, the mountebanks: little Cromeron would hawk their wares around the mocking town. A prince of hype, if nothing else. His foes, and they are many and they grow, do not forget.
“My enemies, George – they never sleep. Nigel of Kent raises the richer churls against me. Puffed with pride, the better kind of peasant wants to cut our trade across the Narrow Seas. And who would but their fustian cloth then? Tell me that. Without the Flemings, they starve. A canting preacher, Ed of Haverstock, goes about the country to blacken my name among the masterless men and the landless poor.”
“Ed of where?”
“Exactly. Let’s not fret too much over him. But Sir Boris of Islington … He feigns to bow before me. His lips form compliments. He bides his time. And all the while, I know his heart.”
The Chief Minister hesitates. Motes dance like angels, or devils, in the sunlight from the open casement. With it comes a whiff of dung and blood. A wagon stacked with carcasses clatters down the rutted way towards the stinking Thames. Thomas Cromeron flushes, and reddens again. His face becomes a drenched beetroot.
“George, that man will be the death of me. The wenches, the wives, the gentlewomen even. He rides through London like a king already. No bawdy rogue in a stinking piss-damp alley will lift a petticoat or down a pot without a blessing on Good Sir Boris. Yet no one dare lay a hand on him.”
“Though not vice versa, eh, Thomas.” The Treasurer squeals with mirth, like a slaughtered piglet. The Chief Minister feels faint. He glimpses a block. An axe. A severed head – his own. In front of it, a plump laughing face framed in a shaggy mess of blond – the last thing on earth he will see. A wave of panic slaps him awake again.
“Sir Boris – Good Lord! George – the new prince-ess!” Would his rival stoop to any trick? “The line of succession, the future of the throne, my future … Are we sure, George? Are we really sure?”
“Don’t worry, Thomas.” The Treasurer smiles his knife-thin assassin’s smile. “We are.”