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

In the great place of Smithfield, towards noon, Thomas Culpepper sat his horse on the outskirts of the crowd.  By his side Hogben, the gatewarden, had much ado to hold his pikestaff across his horse’s crupper in the thick of the people.

The pavement of heads filled the place-bare some of them, some of them covered, according as their owners had cast their caps on high for joy at the Bishop of Worcester’s words against the Papist that was to be burned, or as they pressed their thumbs harder down in disfavour and waited to shew their joy at the hanging of the three Protestants that should follow.  In the centre towered on high a great gallows from which depended a chain; and at the end of the chain, half-hidden by the people, but shewing his shoulders and his head, a man in a friar’s cowl.  And, towering as high as the gallows, painted green as to its coat and limbs, but gilt in the helmet and brandishing a great spear, was the image called David Darvel Gatheren that the Papist Welsh adored.  This image had been brought there that, in its burning, it might consume the friar Forest.  It gazed, red-cheeked and wooden, across the sunlight space at the pulpit of the Bishop of Worcester in his white cassock and black hat, waving his white arms and exhorting the man in the gallows to repent at the last moment.  Some words of Latimer might now and again be heard; the chained friar stood upon the rungs of a ladder set against the gallows post; he hung down his head and shook it, but no word could be heard to come from his lips.

‘Damnable heretic and foul traitor!’ Latimer’s urgings came across the sea of heads.  ‘Here sitteth his Majesty’s council-’ At these words went up a little buzz of question, but sufficient from all that great crowd to send as it were a wind that blew away the Bishop’s words.  For the style ‘his Majesty’ was so new to the land that people were questioning what new council this might be, or what lord’s whose style they did not know.  Latimer waved his arm behind him, half turning, to indicate the King’s men.  These ministers, bravely bonneted so that the jewels sparkled, habited in brown so that the red cloth covering their tiers of seats shewed between their arms and shoulders, sat, like a gay bank of flowers above the lake of heads, surrounded by many other lords and ladies in shining colours.  They sat there ready to sign the pardon that was prepared if the friar would be moved by fear or by the Bishop’s argument to hang his head and recant.

The friar, truly, hung his head, clung to the rungs of the ladder, trembled so that all men might see, and once caught furiously at the iron chain and shook it; but no word came from his lips.  Culpepper was bursting with pride and satisfaction because he was a made man and would have all the world to know it.  He swung his green bonnet round his red head and called for huzzays when the friar shewed fear.  Hogben called for huzzays for Squahre Tom of Lincoln, and many men cheered.  But the silence dropped again, and the Bishop’s words, raised now very high, dominated the sunlight and eddied around the tall faces of the house fronts behind.

’Here have sat the nobles of the realm and the King’s Majesty’s most honourable council only to have granted pardon to you, wretched creature, if but some spark of repentance would have happened in ye.’  Hanging his cowled poll beneath the beam that reached gigantic and black across the crowd, the friar shook his head slowly.  ’Declared to you your errors I have,’ cried Latimer.  ’Openly and manifestly by the scriptures of God, with many and godly exhortations have I moved you to repentance.  Yet will you neither hear nor speak-

‘Bones of St. Nairn!’ Culpepper cried; ’here is too much speaking and no work.  Huzzay! e caitiffs.  Burn.  Burn.  Burn.  For the honour of England.’  And, starting from his figure at the verge of the crowd, cries went up of ‘Huzzay!’ of ‘Burn!’ and ‘St George for London!’ and unquiet rumours and struggles and waving in the crowd of heads, so that the Bishop’s voice was not heard any more that day.

But through the crowd a silence fell as the image slowly and totteringly moved forward, ankle deep only in the crowd.  Ropes from the figure’s neck ran out and tightened-some among the crowd began to sing the song against Welsh Papists that ran-

    ’David Darvel Gatheren
    As sayeth the Welshmen
    Fetched outlaws out of hell!

and the burden of it rose so loud that the image swayed over and fell unheard.  At that too a silence fell, and presently there came the sound of axes chopping.  The friar, swaying on his ladder, looked down and then made a great sign of the cross.  The Bishop in his pulpit, raising his white arms in horror and imprecation, seemed to be giving the signal for new uproars.

Whilst he shouted with delight, Culpepper felt a man catch at his leg.  He kicked his foot loose, but his hand on the bridle was clutched.  There was a fair man at his horses shoulder that bore Privy Seals lion badge upon his chest.  His face was upturned, and in the clamour he spoke indistinguishable words.  Culpepper struck towards the mouth with his fist; the man shrank back, but stood, nevertheless, close still in the crowd.  When the silence fell again, Culpepper could hear amongst the swift chopping of the axes the words-

‘I rede ye ride swiftly to Hampton.  I am the Lord Cromwell’s man.’

Culpepper brought his excited mind from the thought of the burning and the joy of the day, with its crowd and its odour of men, and sunshine and tumult.

‘Ye say?  Swine,’ he shouted.  ‘Come aside!’ He caught at the man’s collar and kicked his horse and pulled at its jaws till it drew them out of the thin crowd to a street’s opening.

‘Sir,’ the man said-he had a goodly cloth suit of dark green that spoke to his being of weight in some house-hold-’ye are like to lose your farms at Bromley an ye hasten not to Master Viridus, who holdeth the deedings to you.’

Culpepper uttered an inarticulate roar and smote his patient horse on the side of the head for two minutes of fierce blows, digging with his heels into the girthings.

‘Sir,’ the man said again, ’some lord will have these lands an ye come not to Hampton ere six of the clock.  I know not the way of it that be a servant.  But Master Viridus sent me with this message.’

Already a thin swirl of blue smoke was ascending past the friar’s figure to the bright sky; it caressed the beam of the gallows and Culpepper’s bloodshot eye pursued it upwards.

‘Before God!’ he muttered, ’I was set to see this burning.  Ye have seen many; I never a one.’  A new spasm of rage caught him:  he dragged at his horse’s head, and shouting, ‘Gallop! gallop!’ set off into the dark streets, his crony behind his back.

In the Poultry he knocked over a man in a red coat that had a gold chain about his neck; on the Chepe he jumped his horse across a pigman’s booth-it brought down Hogben, horse and pike; three drunken men were fighting in Paternoster Street-Culpepper charged above their bodies; but very shortly he came through Temple Bar and was in the marshes and fields.  Well out between the hedgerows he was aware that one galloped behind him.  He drew a violent rein where the Cow Brook crossed the deep muddied road and looked back.

‘Sir,’ he called, ’this night I will hold a mouse on a chain above a coal fire.  So I will see a burning, and my cousin Kat shall see it with me.’  He spurred on again.

By the time he was come to Brentford four men, habited like the first, rode behind him.  When he stayed to let his horse drink from the river opposite Richmond Hill, he was aware that across the stream a pageant with sweet music marched a little beyond the further bank.  He could see the tops of pikes and pennons amid the tree trunks.

He muttered that such a pageant he would very soon make for himself; for, filled with the elation of his new magnificence, since Privy Seal was his friend and Viridus was earnest to do him favour, he imagined that no captain nor lord in that land soon should overpass him.  For that any lord should desire his new lands troubled him little; only he hastened to cut that lord’s throat and to kiss his cousin Kat.

It was a quarter before six when he drew rein in the green yard that lay before the King’s arch in Hampton.  There befel the strangest scuffle there; flaring for a moment and gone out like the gunpowder they sometimes lit in saucers for sport.  A man called Lascelles came slowly from under the arch to meet him, and then, running over the green grass from the little side door, came the young Poins in red breeches, pulling off a red coat that he had had but half the time to don and tugging at his sword whose hilt was caught in the sleeve hole.  Even as he issued, Lascelles, walking slowly, began to run and to call.  Four other men of Privy Seal’s ran from under the arch, and the four men that had followed behind him so far, closed their horses round his.  The boy had his sword out and his coat gave as he ran.  Lascelles closed near him on the grass, stretched out a foot to trip, and the boy lay sprawling, his hands stretched out, his sword three yards before him.  The four men that had run from the arch had him up upon his feet and held his arms when Culpepper had ridden the hundred yards from the gate to them.

‘Why,’ said Culpepper, gazing upon the boy’s face, ’it was thee wouldst have my farms.’  He spat in the boy’s face and rode complacently under the archway where were many men of Privy Seal’s in the side chambers and on the steps that ran steeply to the King’s new hall.

‘I do conceive now,’ Culpepper, in descending from his horse, spoke to Lascelles, ’wherefore that knave would have had me stay in Calais and be warder of barges.  ‘A would have my lands here.’

Word was given him that he must without delay go to the Sieur Viridus, and in a high good humour he followed the lead of Lascelles through the rabbit warren of small and new passages of the palace.  In them it was already nearly dark.

It was in that way that, landing at the barge stage, a little stiff with the cold of his barge journey, Throckmorton came upon the young Poins in his scarlet breeches, his face cut and bleeding in his contact with the earth, his sword gone.  Privy Seal’s men that had fallen upon him had kicked him out of the palace gates.  They had no warrant yet to take him; the quarrel was none of theirs.  The boy was of the King’s Guard, it was true, but his company lay then at the Tower.

Throckmorton cursed at him when he heard his news; and when he heard that Culpepper was then in the palace where window lights already shone before him, he ran to the archway.  He had no time for reflection save as he ran.  Word was given him in the archway itself that Privy Seal would see him instantly and with great haste and urgency.  He asked only for news where Thomas Culpepper was, and ran, upon the disastrous hearing that Viridus had taken him up the privy stairway.  And, in that darkness, thoughts ran in his head.  Disaster was here.  But what?  Privy Seal called for him.  He had no time for Privy Seal.  Culpepper was gone to Kat Howard’s room.  Viridus there had taken him.  There was no other room up the winding staircase to which he could go.  Here was disaster!  For whether he stayed Culpepper or no, Privy Seal must know that he had betrayed him.  As he ran swiftly the desperate alternative coursed in his mind.  Rich, the Chancellor of the Augmentations, and he had their tale pat, that Privy Seal was secretly raising the realm against the King.  He himself had got good matter that morning listening to the treasonable talking of the printer Badge.

Several men in the stair angle would have stopped him when at last he was at foot of the winding stairs.  He whispered: 

‘I be Throckmorton upon my master’s business,’ and was through and in the darkness of the stairway.

Why was there no cresset?  Why were there these men?  It came into his mind that already the King had heard Culpepper.  Already Katharine was arrested.  He groaned as he mounted the stairs.  For in that case, with those men behind him, he was in a gaol already.  He paused to go back; then it came to him that, if he could win forward and find the King, who alone, by giving ear, could save him, he would yet not know first how Katharine had fared.  He had a great stabbing at his heart with that thought, and once more mounted.

From the door next hers there streamed a light.  Hers was closed.  He ran to it and knocked, leaning his head against the panels to listen.  There was no sound, no sound at all when he knocked again.  It was intolerable.  He thrust the door open.  No woman was there and no man.  He went in.  He thought:  ‘If the room be in disorder-

He made out in the twilight that the room stood as always; the chair loomed where it should; there was a spark on the hearth; the books were ordered on the table; no stool was overturned.  He stood amid these things, his heart beating tumultuously, his ears pricked up, stilling his breathing to listen, in the blue twilight, like a wild beast.

A voice said: 

‘Body o’ God!  Throckmorton!’ beneath its breath, the light of the next door grew large and smaller again; he caught from there the words:  ‘It is Throckmorton.’  And at the sound Throckmorton loosened his dagger in its sheath.  Some glimmering of the plan reached him; they were awaiting Katharine’s coming, and a great load fell from his mind.  She was not yet taken.

He paused to stroke his beard for fear it was disordered, pulled from over his shoulder the medallion on the chain; it had flown there as he ran.  He pushed ajar the next door a minute later, having thought many thoughts and appearing stately and calm.

He replaced the door at its exact angle and gazed at the three silent men.  Thomas Culpepper, his brows knotted, his lips moving, was holding his head askew to see the measurements upon a map of his farm at Bromley.  That Lascelles had gone out and come back saying that one Throckmorton was in the next room was nothing to him.  The next room was nothing to him; he was there to hear of his farms.

Viridus, silent, dark and enigmatic, gazed at a spot upon the table; Lascelles, his mouth a little open, his eyes dilated, had his hands upon it.

Without speaking, Throckmorton noted that the room was empty save for the table and benches; the hangings had been taken down; all the furnishings were gone.  That morning the room had been well filled, warm, and in the occupancy of the Lady Deedes.  Therefore Cromwell had worked this change.  No other had this power.  They waited, then, those three, for the coming of Katharine Howard or the King.  Lascelles shewed fear and surprise at his being there; therefore Lascelles was deeply concerned in this matter.  Lascelles was in the service of Cranmer that morning; now he sat there.  Thus he, too, for certain, was in this plan; he was a new servant to Privy Seal-and new servants are zealous.  With Viridus he had had some talk of events.  Therefore Lascelles was the greatest danger.

Throckmorton moved slowly behind Culpepper and sat down beside him; in his left hand he had his small dagger, its blue blade protruding from the ham; Culpepper beside him was at his right.  He said very softly in Italian to Lascelles: 

’Both your hands are upon the table; if you move one my dagger pierces your eye to the brain.  So also if you speak in the English language.’

Lascelles muttered:  ‘Judas! Traditore!’ Viridus sat motionless, and Culpepper moved his finger across the plan of the farm.

‘Here is the mixen,’ he appealed to Viridus, who nodded.

It was as if Throckmorton, with his slow manner and low voice, was a friend who had come in to speak to Lascelles about the weather or the burnings.  He was no concern of Culpepper’s, nor was Lascelles who had spoken no word at all.

Throckmorton kept his head turned towards Lascelles as if he were still addressing him, and spoke in the same level voice, still in Italian.

‘Viridus, to thee I speak.  This is a very great matter.’  Unconsciously he used the set form of words of Privy Seal.  ’Consider well these things.  The day of our master is nigh at an end.  Rich, Chancellor of the Augmentations, thy crony and master, and my ally, hath made a plan to go with me to the King this night with witnesses and papers accusing Privy Seal of raising the land against his Highness.  Will you join with us, or will you be lost with Privy Seal?’

Viridus kept his eyes upon the same spot of the table.

‘Tell me more,’ he said.  ‘This matter is very weighty.’  His tone was level, monotonous and still.  He too might have been saying that the sunshine that day had been long.

‘A fad to talk Latin of ye courtiers,’ Culpepper said with uninterested scorn.  ‘Ye will forget God’s language of English.’  He slapped Throckmorton on the sleeve.  ’See, what a fine farm I have for my deserts,’ he said.

‘Ye shall have better,’ Throckmorton said.  ’I have moved the King in your behalf.’  But he kept his eyes on Lascelles.

Culpepper cast back his cap from his eyes and leant away the better to slap Throckmorton on the back.

‘Ye ha’ heard o’ my deeds,’ he said.

‘All England rings with them,’ Throckmorton said.  He interjected, ‘Still! hound!’ to Lascelles in Italian, and went on to Culpepper:  ’I ha’ moved the King to come this night to thy cousin’s room hard by for I knew ye would go to her.  The King is hot to speak with thee.  Comport thyself as I do bid thee and art a made man indeed.’

Culpepper laughed with hysterical delight.

‘By Cock!’ he shouted.  ’Master Viridus, thou art naught to this.  Three farms shall not content me nor yet ten.’

Throckmorton’s eyes shot a glance at Viridus and back again to Lascelles’ face.

‘If you speak I slay you,’ he said.  Lascelles’ eyes started from his head, his mouth worked, and on the table his hands jerked convulsively.  But Throckmorton had seen that Viridus still sat motionless.

‘By Cock!’ Culpepper cried.  ‘By Guy and Cock! let me kiss thee.’

‘Sir,’ Throckmorton said, ’I pray you speak no more words, not at all till I bid you speak.  I am a very great lord here; you shall observe gravity and decorum or never will I bring you to the King.  You are not made for Courts.’

‘Oh, I kiss your hands,’ Culpepper answered him.  ’But wherefore have you a dagger?’

‘Sir,’ Throckmorton said again, ’I will have you silent, for if the King should pass the door he will be offended by your babble.’  He interjected to Viridus, speaking in Italian, ’Speak thou to this fool and engage him to think.  I can give you no more grounds, but you must quickly decide either to go with Rich the Chancellor and myself or to remain the liege of the Privy Seal.’

Never once did he take his eyes from Lascelles, and the sweat stood upon his forehead.  Once when Lascelles moved he slid the dagger along the table with a sharp motion and a gasping of breath, as a pincer pressed to the death will make a faint.  Yet his voice neither raised itself nor fell one shade.

‘And if I will aid you in this, what reward do I get?’ Viridus asked.  He too spoke low and unmovedly, keeping his eyes upon the table.

’The one-half of my enrichments for five years, the one-half of those of the Chancellor, and my voice for you with the King and with the new Queen.’

‘And if I will not go with you?’

’Then when the King passeth this door I do cry out “Treason! treason!” and you, I, and this man, and this shall to-night sleep in the King’s prison, not in Privy Seal’s.  And I will have you think that I am sib and rib with Kat Howard who shall sway the King if her cousin be induced not to play the beast.’

Viridus spoke no word; but when Culpepper, idle and gaping, reached out his hand to take the black flagon of wine that was between them under the candles on the table, Viridus stretched forth his hand and clasped the bottle.

‘It is not expedient that you drink,’ he said.

‘Why somever then?’ Culpepper asked.

’That neither do you make a beast of yourself if you come before the King’s great majesty this night,’ Viridus said in his cold and minatory voice, ’not yet smell beastly of liquors when you kiss the King his hand.’

Culpepper said: 

‘By Cock!  I had forgot the King’s highness.’

’See that you kneel before him and speak not; see that you raise your eyes not from the floor nor breathe loudly; see that when the King’s high and awful majesty dismisses you you go quietly.’  Throckmorton spoke.  ’See that you speak not with nor of your cousin.  For so dreadful is a king, and this King more than others; and so terrible his wrath and desire of worship-and this King’s more than others-that if ye speak above a whisper’s sound, if ye act other than as a babe before its preceptor’s rod, you are cast out utterly and undone.  You shall never more have farms nor lands; you shall never more have joyance nor gladness; you shall rot forgotten in a hole as you had never done brave things for the King’s grace.’

‘By Cock!’ Culpepper said, ’it seems it is easier to talk of a king than with one.’

‘See that you remember it,’ Throckmorton said, ’for with great trouble have I brought this King so far to talk with you!’

He moved his dagger yet nearer to Lascelles’ form and held his finger to his lip.  Viridus had never once moved; he stayed now as still as ever.  Culpepper crammed his hand over his lips.

For from without there came the sound of voices and, in that dead silence, the rustle of a woman’s gown, swishing and soft.  A deep voice uttered heavily: 

‘Aye, I know your feelings.  I have had my sadness.’  It paused for a moment, and mouthed on:  ’I can cap your Lucretius too with “Usque adeo res humanas vis abdita-"’ It seemed that for a moment the speaker stayed before the door where all three held their breaths.  ’I have read more of the Fathers, of late days, than of the writers profane.’

They heard the breathing of a heavy man who had mounted stairs.  The voice sounded more faintly: 

’Now you have naught further to think of than the goodly words of Ecclesiastes:  “Et cognovi quod non esset melius, nisi laetare et...."’ The voice died dead away with the closing of the door.  And as a torch passed, Throckmorton knew that the King had waited there whilst light was being made in Katharine’s room.  He said softly to Viridus: 

’Whilst I go unto them you shall hold this dagger against this fool’s throat.  We gain as many hours as we may hold him from blabbing to Privy Seal.  And consider that we must bring to the King Rich and Udal and many other witnesses this night.’

‘Throckmorton,’ Viridus said, ’before thou goest thou shalt satisfy me of many things.  I have not yet given myself into thy hands.’