Read THE DISTANT CLOUD : Chapter I of Privy Seal His Last Venture , free online book, by Ford Madox Ford, on ReadCentral.com.

The young Poins, once an ensign of the King’s guard, habited now in grey, stood awaiting Thomas Culpepper, Katharine Howard’s cousin, beneath the new gateway towards the east of Calais.  Four days he had waited already and never had he dared to stir, save when the gates were closed for the night.  But it had chanced that one of the gatewardens was a man from Lincolnshire-a man, once a follower of the plough, whose father had held a farm in the having of Culpepper himself.

’-But he sold ‘un,’ Nicholas Hogben said, ’sold ‘un clear away.’  He made a wry face, winked one eye, and drawing up the right corner of his mouth, displayed square, huge teeth.  The young Poins making no question, he repeated twice:  ‘Clear away.  Right clear away.’

Poins, however, could hold but one thing of a time in his head.  And, by that striving, dangerous servant of Lord Privy Seal, Throckmorton, it had been firmly enjoined upon him that he must not fail to meet Thomas Culpepper and stay him upon his road to England.  Throckmorton, with his great beard and cruel snake’s eyes, had said:  ’I hold thy head in fee.  If ye would save it, meet Thomas Culpepper in Calais and give him this letter.’  The letter he had in his poke.  It carried with it a deed making Culpepper lieutenant of the stone barges in Calais.  But he had it too, by word of mouth, that if Thomas Culpepper would not be stayed by the letter, he, Hal Poins, must stay him-with the sword, with a stab in the back, or by being stabbed himself and calling in the guard to lay Thomas Culpepper’s self by the heels.

‘You will enjoin upon him,’ Throckmorton had said, ’how goodly a thing is the lieutenancy of stone lighters that in this letter is proffered him.  You will tell him that, if a barge of stone go astray, it is yet a fair way to London, and stone fetches good money from townsmen building in Calais.  If he will gainsay this you will pick a quarrel with him, as by saying he gives you the lie.  In short,’ Throckmorton had finished, earnestly and with a sinuous grace of gesture in his long and narrow hands, ‘you will stay him.’

It was a desperate measure, yet it was the best he could compass.  If Culpepper came to London, if he came to the King, Katharine’s fortunes were not worth a rushlight such as were sold at twenty for a farthing.  He knew, too, that Viridus had Cromwell’s earnest injunctions to send a messenger that should hasten Culpepper’s return; and, though he had seven hundred of Cromwell’s spies that he could trust to do Privy Seal’s errand, he had not one that he could trust to do his own.  There was no one of them that he could trust.  If he took a spy and said:  ’At all costs stay Culpepper, but observe very strict secrecy from Privy Seal’s men all,’ the spy would very certainly let the news come to Privy Seal.

It was in this pass that the thought of the young Poins had come to him.  Here was a fellow absolutely stupid.  He was a brother of Katharine Howard’s tiring maid who had already come near to losing his head in a former intrigue in the Court.  He had, at the instigation of his sister, carried two Papist letters of Katharine Howard.  And, if it was the King who pardoned him, it was Throckmorton who first had taken him prisoner; it was Throckmorton who had advised him to lie hidden in his grandfather’s house for a month or two.  At the time Throckmorton had had no immediate reason to give the boy this counsel.  Poins had been so small a tool in the past embroilment of Katharine’s letter that, had he gone straight back to his post in the yeomanry of the King’s guard, no man would have noticed him.  But it had always been part of the devious and great bearded man’s policy-it had been part of his very nature-to play upon people’s fears, to trouble them with apprehensions.  It was part of the tradition that Cromwell had given all his men.  He ruled England by such fears.

Thus Throckmorton had sent Poins trembling to hide in the old printer’s his grandfather’s house in the wilds of Austin Friars.  And Throckmorton had impressed upon him that he alone had really saved him.  It was in his grandfather’s mean house that Poins had remained for a brace of months, grumbled at by his Protestant uncle and sneered at by his malicious Papist grandfather.  And it was here that Throckmorton had found him, dressed in grey, humbled from his pride and raging for things to do.

The boy would be of little service-yet he was all that Throckmorton had.  If he could hardly be expected to trick Culpepper with his tongue, he might wound him with his sword; if he could not kill him he might at least scotch him, cause a brawl in Calais town, where, because the place was an outpost, brawling was treason, and Culpepper might be had by the heels for long enough to let Cromwell fall.  Therefore, in the low room with the black presses, in the very shadow of Cromwell’s own walls, Throckmorton-who was given the privacy of the place by the Lutheran printer because he was Cromwell’s man-large, golden-bearded and speaking in meaning whispers, with lifting of his eyebrows, had held a long conference with the lad.

His dangerous and terrifying presence seemed to dominate, for the young Poins, even the dusty archway of the Calais gate-and, even though he saw the flat, green and sunny levels of the French marshland, with the town of Ardres rising grey and turreted six miles away, the young Poins felt that he was still beneath the eyes of Throckmorton, the spy who had sought him out in his grandfather’s house in Austin Friars to send him here across the seas to Calais.  Up above in the archway the stonemasons who came from Lydd sang their Kentish songs as hammers clinked on chisels and the fine dust filtered through the scaffold boards.  But the young Poins kept his eyes upon the dusty and winding road that threaded the dykes from Ardres, and thought only that when Thomas Culpepper came he must be stayed.  He had oiled his sword that had been his father’s so that it would slip smoothly from the scabbard; he had filed his dagger so that it would pierce through thin coat of mail.  It was well to be armed, though he could not see why Thomas Culpepper should not stay willingly at Calais to be lieutenant of the stone lighters and steal stone to fill his pockets, since such were the privileges of the post that Throckmorton offered him.

‘Mayhap, if I stay him, it will get me advancement,’ he grumbled between his teeth.  He was enraged in his slow, fierce way.  For Throckmorton had promised him only to save his neck if he succeeded.  There had been no hint of further rewards.  He did not speculate upon why Thomas Culpepper was to be held in Calais; he did not speculate upon why he should wish to come to England; but again and again he muttered between his teeth, ‘A curst business! a curst business!’

In the mysterious embroilment in which formerly he had taken part, his sister had told him that he was carrying letters between the King and Kat Howard.  Yes; his large, slow sister had promised him great advancement for carrying certain letters.  And still, in spite of the fact that he had been told it was a treason, he believed that the letters he had carried for Kat Howard were love letters to the King.  Nevertheless, for his services he had received no advancement; he had, on the contrary, been bidden to leave his comrades of the guard and to hide himself.  Throckmorton had bidden him do this.  And instead of advancement, he had received kicks, curses, cords on his wrists, an interview with the Lord Privy Seal that still in the remembrance set him shivering, and this chance, offered him by Throckmorton, that if he stayed Thomas Culpepper he might save his neck.

‘Why, then,’ he grumbled to himself, ’is it treason to carry the King’s letters to a wench?  Helping the King is no treason.  I should be advanced, not threatened with a halter.  Letters between the King and Kat Howard!’ He even attempted to himself a clumsy joke, polishing it and repolishing it till it came out:  ’A King may write to a Kat.  A Kat may write to a King.  But my neck’s in danger!’

Beside him, whitened by the dust that fell from above, the gatewarden wandered in speech round his grievance.

’You ask me, young lad, if I know Tom Culpepper.  Well I know Tom Culpepper.  Y’ ask me if he have passed this way going for England.  Well I know he have not.  For if Tom Culpepper, squire that was of Durford and Maintree and Sallowford that was my father’s farm-if so be Tom Culpepper had passed this way, I had spat in the dust behind him as he passed.’

He made his wry face, winked his eye and showed his teeth once more.  ‘Spat in the dust-I should ha’ spat in the dust,’ he remarked again.  ‘Or maybe I’d have cast my hat on high wi’ “Huzzay, Squahre Tom!” according as the mood I was in,’ he said.  He winked again and waited.

‘For sure,’ he affirmed after a pause, ’that will move ’ee to ask why I du spit in the dust or for why-the thing being contrary-I’d ha’ cast up my cap.’

The young Poins pulled an onion from his poke.

‘If you are so main sure he have not passed the gate,’ he said, ’I may take my ease.’  He sat him down against the gate wall where the April sun fell warm through the arch of shadows.  He stripped the outer peel from the onion and bit into it.  ‘Good, warming eating,’ he said, ’when your stomach’s astir from the sea.’

‘Young lad,’ the gatewarden said, ’I’m as fain to swear my mother bore me-though God forbid I should swear who my father was, woman being woman-as that Thomas Culpepper have not passed this way.  For why:  I’d have cast my hat on high or spat on the ground.  And such things done mark other things that have passed in the mind of a man.  And I have done no such thing.’

But because the young Poins sat always silent with his eyes on the road to Ardres and slept-being privileged because he was yeoman of the King’s guard-always in the little stone guard cell of the gateway at nights; because, in fact, the young man’s whole faculties were set upon seeing that Thomas Culpepper did not pass unseen through the gate, it was four days before the gatewarden contrived to get himself asked why he would have spat in the dust or cast his hat on high.  It was, as it were, a point of honour that he should be asked for all the information that he gave; and he thirsted to tell his tale.

His tale had it that he had been ruined by a wench who had thrown her shoe over the mill and married a horse-smith, after having many times tickled the rough chin of Nicholas Hogben.  Therefore, he had it that all women were to be humbled and held down-for all women were traitors, praters, liars, worms and vermin. (He made a great play of words between wermen, meaning worms, and wermin and wummin.) He had been ruined by this woman who had tickled him under the chin-that being an ingratiating act, fit to bewitch and muddle a man, like as if she had promised him marriage.  And then she had married a horse-smith!  So he was ready and willing, and prayed every night that God would send him the chance, to ruin and hold down every woman who walked the earth or lay in a bed.

But he had been ruined, too, by Thomas Culpepper, who had sold Durford and Maintree and Sallowford-which last was Hogben’s father’s farm.  For why?  Selling the farm had let in a Lincoln lawyer, and the Lincoln lawyer had set the farm to sheep, which last had turned old Hogben, the father, out from his furrows to die in a ditch-there being no room for farmers and for sheep upon one land.  It had sent old Hogben, the father, to die in a ditch; it had sent his daughters to the stews and his sons to the road for sturdy beggars.  So that, but for Wallop’s band passing that way when Hogben was grinning through the rope beneath Lincoln town tree-but for the fact that men were needed for Wallop’s work in Calais, by the holy blood of Hailes!  Hogben would have been rating the angel’s head in Paradise.

But there had been great call for men to man the walls there in Calais, so Wallop’s ancient had written his name down on the list, beneath the gallows tree, and had taken him away from the Sheriff of Lincoln’s man.

‘So here a be,’ he drawled, ‘cutting little holes in my pikehead.’

‘’Tis a folly,’ the young Poins said.

‘Sir,’ the Lincolnshire man answered, ’you say ’tis a folly to make small holes in a pikehead.  But for me ’tis the greatest of ornaments.  Give you, it weakens the pikehead; but ‘tis a gradely ornament.’

‘Ornaments be folly,’ the young Poins reiterated.

‘Sir,’ the Lincolnshire man answered again, ’there is the goodliest folly that ever was.  For if I weaken my eyes and tire my wrists with small tappers and little files, and if I weaken the steel with small holes, each hole represents a woman I have known undone and cast down in her pride by a man.  Here be sixty-and-four holes round and firm in a pattern.  Sixty-and-four women I have known undone.’

He paused and surveyed, winking and moving the scroll that the little holes made in the tough steel of his axehead.  Where a perforation was not quite round, he touched it with his file.

‘Hum! ha!’ he gloated.  ’In the centre of the head is the master hole of all, planned out for being cut.  But not yet cut!  Mark you, ’tis not yet cut.  That is for the woman I hate most of all women.  She is not yet cast down that I have heard tell on, though some have said “Aye,” some “Nay.”  Tell me, have you heard yet of a Kat Howard in the stews?’

‘There is a Kat Howard is like to be-’ the young Poins began.  But his slow cunning was aroused before he had the sentence out.  Who could tell what trick was this?

‘Like to be what?’ the Lincolnshire man badgered him.  ’Like to be what?  To be what?’

‘Nay, I know not,’ Poins answered.

‘Like to be what?’ Hogben persisted.

‘I know no Kat Howard,’ Poins muttered sulkily.  For he knew well that the Lady Katharine’s name was up in the taverns along of Thomas Culpepper.  And this Lincolnshire cow-dog was a knave too of Thomas’s; therefore the one Kat Howard who was like to be the King’s wench and the other Kat Howard known to Hogben might well be one and the same.

‘Nay; if you will not, neither even will I,’ Hogben said.  ’You shall have no more of my tale.’

Poins kept his blue eyes along the road.  Far away, with an odd leap, waving its arms abroad and coming by fits and starts, as a hare gambols along a path-a figure was tiny to see, coming from Ardres way towards Calais.  It passed a load of hay on an ox-cart, and Poins could see the peasants beside it scatter, leap the dyke and fly to stand panting in the fields.  The figure was clenching its fists; then it fell to kicking the oxen; when they had overset the cart into the dyke, it came dancing along with the same hare’s gait.

’That is too like the repute of Thomas Culpepper to be other than Thomas Culpepper,’ the young Poins said.  ‘I will go meet him.’

He started to his feet, loosed the sword in its scabbard; but the Lincolnshire man had his halberd across the gateway.

‘Pass!  Shew thy pass!’ he said vindictively.

‘I go but to meet him,’ Poins snarled.

‘A good lie; thou goest not,’ Hogben answered.  ’No Englishman goes into the French lands without a pass from the lord controller.  An thou keepest a shut head I can e’en keep a shut gate.’

None the less he must needs talk or stifle.

‘Thee, with thy Kat Howard,’ he snarled.  ’Would ’ee have me think thy Kat was my kitten whose name stunk in our nostrils?’

He shook his finger in Poins’ face.

‘Here be three of us know Kat Howard,’ he said.  ’For I know her, since for her I must leave home and take the road.  And he knoweth her over well or over ill, since, to buy her a gown, he sold the three farms, Maintree, Durford and Sallowford-which last was my father’s farm.  And thee knowest her.  Thee knowest her.  To no good, I’se awarned.  For thou stoppedst in thy speech like a colt before a wood snake.  God bring down all women, I pray!’

He went on to tell, as if it had been a rosary, the names of the ruined women that the holes in his pikehead represented.  There was one left by the wayside with her child; there was one hung for stealing cloth to cover her; there was one whipped for her naughty ways.  He reached the square mark in the centre as the figure on the road reached the gateway.

’Huzzay, Squahre Tom!  Here bay three kennath Kat Howard.  Let us three tak part to kick her down.’

Thomas Culpepper like a green cat flew at his throat, clutched him above the steel breastplate, and shook three times, the gatewarden’s uncovered, dun-coloured head swaying back and forward as if it were a loose bundle of clouts on a mop.  When they parted company, because he could no longer keep his fingers clenched, Hogben fell back; he fell back, and they lay with their heels touching each other and their arms stretched out in the dust.