Chapter One CHAPTER ONE
Saint-Marceau, Paris, August 24, 1572
It starts with a bell in the night, just as he always knew it would.
“Oh, what is it now, for the love of all that is holy?” his wife says, sighing. “I’ve not slept a wink and already it is dawn.”
“Shhhh,” he whispers. “It’s not yet daybreak. Go back to sleep. It’ll soon stop.”
But it doesn’t. The bell rings on, dismal and insistent, and after a while Francis Walsingham leaves his wife, very hot and already grown overlarge with child, in the bed, and he makes his way to the window. He lowers the shutter and looks north, over his neighbors’ modest rooftops, toward the city itself, whence comes the bell’s toll.
“It’s Saint Germain’s,” his daughter tells him. She is awake in her truckle bed, by the side of the big bed, down by his ankle.
“You have good ears,” he whispers.
“What’s happening?” she asks. “I have been having bad dreams.”
He soothes her with some vague words and fumbles for his doublet.
“Francis?” his wife asks.
“I will be back by dawn,” he tells her.
He goes out into the corridor where he finds Oliver Fellowes, his intelligencer, already awake in doublet and breeches, with a candle lit. He is a young man—the son of Walsingham’s old friend John Fellowes—twenty to Walsingham’s forty, handsome, with reddish hair and a neatly barbered beard.
“Well met, Oliver,” Walsingham starts. “Are you just up from down, or in from out?”
Despite the anxiety the bell is causing, Fellowes laughs.
“Working, sir,” he lies.
Walsingham laughs too.
It is the last time he will do so for many days.
“What do you think it is?” Fellowes asks.
They descend the narrow steps where the porter—a stocky Frenchman of the Reformed faith—waits with a bull’s-eye lamp, ready to unbar the door. When they meet the warm August air of the courtyard, all three stare into the star-speckled darkness over Paris.
“Is no fire,” the porter says. “A fire, you see from many leagues at night, and smell, too.”
“What then?” Fellowes asks. “Some saint’s day?”
“Is Bartholomew’s in the morning,” the porter tells them. “But no, is not that.”
Then Fellowes speaks quietly.
“It cannot be Coligny, can it?” he asks. “Not so soon?”
That had been Walsingham’s first fear too: that Gaspard de Coligny—the leader of France’s Protestant Huguenots—had died of his wounds. Someone had tried to kill him two days ago, with an arquebus, from an upstairs window, but had only managed to cap Coligny’s elbow and blow off his finger. Unless and until the wound became infected, he was not thought likely to die.
Unless now he has?
And if so, then there is no knowing what will happen. Will the Huguenots seek revenge against the Catholics? Or will the Catholics preempt the Huguenots and come for them? Paris is a tinderbox. France is a tinderbox. The whole of Christendom is a tinderbox.
“No,” Walsingham tells Fellowes. “Listen: my daughter is right. That bell: it is Saint Germain’s, the king’s chapel. The Catholics would never mourn Coligny.”
Fellowes agrees, but knowing what it isn’t doesn’t help them with what it is.
Just then another bell joins it, then another a moment later.
Oh by Christ, Walsingham thinks, they are passing a signal.
His guts roil. This is it. This is what they most feared would happen.
“Send someone to rouse Sir Philip, will you?” he tells the porter. “As well as Tewlis and the rest of his men. Have them keep the fires covered and the women within.”
The porter grunts and sets off to wake Sir Philip Sidney, Walsingham’s secretary, and Tewlis, the commander of his guards. Walsingham turns back to Fellowes.
“Oliver,” he confides, “before this turns ugly, we need to perform a little task. Can you dig up a couple of swords—and anything else if you have it—and meet me at the stables as soon as you can?”
Fellowes raises a brow.
“Shall I summon a troop of guards?”
“No,” Walsingham tells him. “This had best be just the two of us. No undue attention.”
Fellowes looks sharp.
“Is it Mistress Cochet?” he asks.
Walsingham almost smiles. Ah, he thinks, another of us enslaved by Isobel Cochet’s charms.
“No,” he says. “She remains at the Louvre palace, I hope. She will be safe there, whatever happens.”
Yes, Isobel Cochet will be safe wherever she goes and whatever happens, he thinks. Or hopes: it was he, after all, who sent her into the Louvre to be his ear to the door, his eye to the keyhole, so if anything has befallen her, then it will be him, Francis Walsingham, who will have to face her daughter—who must be what, six, by now?—to tell her that her mother is dead, just as he had once had to face Isobel herself to tell her that her husband had been killed in his service.
Not long later he meets Fellowes at the torch-lit stables behind the residency, watched over by a doubtful ostler. Walsingham straps on the unaccustomed sword belt and loosens the blade in its scabbard. Then he leads the horse out into the yard, with Fellowes behind.
Sir Philip Sidney is up, no cap, hair a little on end, standing in the yard.
“What’s happening?” he asks.
“You are to take command of the residency,” Walsingham tells him. “Oliver and I will be perhaps an hour, two at the most. You will know what to do if we are longer.”
Burn everything and evacuate the residence. Yes. Yes. He knows. But concern creases his handsome face.
“Can I not go in your place?” he asks, knowing the answer.
Walsingham mounts up.
“Good of you, Sir Philip, but this is…”
He trails off.
They all three know.
“Ready?” he asks Fellowes.
When they open the gates, it is still dark, but the sky to the east is blood red, limned with green, and every bell in Paris is ringing. Off they set, up the road toward the Petit Pont, with the gates closing behind.
Saint-Marceau is a modest, mostly Reformed area, all Walsingham can afford on his daily diet, and all along the wayside, worried householders have come out to stand before their doors, pale linen gleaming in the gloom, listening to the bells, asking for news.
It comes soon enough; before Walsingham and Fellowes have ridden a hundred paces: a single rider, coming too fast and scattering the watch on the Porte Saint-Marcel.
“They’ve killed Coligny!” he shouts. “The Catholics! They threw him out of a window! Now they’re coming this way, killing everyone! Run! Run! For the love of God! They’ll kill you all!”
He doesn’t stop, but thunders past, and there is much screaming and shouting, and Walsingham’s neighbors scatter back into their houses.
Walsingham heels his horse onward toward the bridge, Fellowes at his elbow.
“Where are we going, sir?” he asks. “What are we doing?”
“To Notre-Dame,” Walsingham tells him, “to see a priest.”
Ahead in the growing light, the road is filling with a tide of people flowing toward them. The horses jitter. Walsingham clings on as people swarm around them.
“Go back!” they shout.
“The Catholics are coming!”
But Walsingham and Fellowes force their way through the swelling crowd and through the first gate. A trap, it must be a trap. Everything within tells him to turn and fly. The road is narrowing between taller houses ahead. Still the bells ring, and still men and women—in the hundreds now—push by. Some are in their finest, some still in nightwear, each clutching whatever they can, infants mostly. They come with heads crooked over shoulders, faces streaked with terror and tears.
“They cut her hands off!” a woman cries. “They cut my mother’s hands off!” She holds up her own, astonished to still have them.
“They are just—butchers!”
Walsingham’s anger is like a physical force, like a gorge. It fills his throat. How can they? These Catholics? How can they turn on their fellow Christians and slaughter them like pigs in autumn? He wishes he were back at home, in England, and far from these papist animals with their insatiable bloodlusts and their ancient, twisted superstitions. He has long feared something like this would happen.
Beside him, Fellowes rides in tense, pale-faced silence.
They smell it before they reach the bridge: blood. It fills every cranny, with a coppery, intimate tang. It makes the horses shy and stamp and toss their heads.
“Come on,” Walsingham encourages his horse—and Fellowes. “We’ve got to get across the bridge before they close it.”
But they are too late. The road ahead empties, and the great gates at the southern end of the Petit Pont are heaved to. The city is sealed off. May the Lord help those trapped within.
Fellowes waits, hoping perhaps Walsingham will turn back, but he will not give up yet.
“We’ll try the river,” he says.
And he leads them eastward along the rue de la Bûcherie where the smell of the old blood between the cobbles is strong enough to mask that of the new.
“In here,” he says, and they dismount, leading the animals into a yard that isn’t too bad. They hobble them to a post and leave the other way, down some steps toward the river’s bank. It is light now, and so they can easily see the men on the Île de la Cité, right under the shadow of the steeple of Notre-Dame, pushing a dead woman’s body into the river. She’s naked and has only one arm. When she’s gone, the men look up and wave the arm at them. They laugh and cheer, then move off, chanting some song, the words of which Walsingham cannot catch. They brandish the arm as if it were a monstrance, and they were beating the bounds in spring, in search of someone else to kill.
Walsingham could gag.
The riverbank is muddy and unkempt hereabouts. They find a boat dragged up out of the river and hidden under a sagging wooden canopy. Its guard has probably run with the rest of them.
There’s an oar and a boat pole, and they haul the boat down into the fast-flowing brown waters.
“Master, are you sure?” Fellowes asks.
“We’ve got to,” Walsingham tells him.
One heave and the boat is in. Walsingham takes the pole, Fellowes the oar, and the boat spins in the current. The water is deep and Walsingham cannot touch the river’s bed with the pole. Fellowes works the oar like a Venetian, but still they drift downstream, westward, toward the bridge. There’s a body in the water. Not a dog. A human. Naked and fat, the skin of his back opened with a whip.
Above them to the right, twenty paces away, the sun shines on the jagged lines of the roofs of the great cathedral and the other houses on the Île de la Cité.
“Come on,” Walsingham urges Fellowes.
By God’s grace, no one sees them from the bridge as they spin through its arches and grind against the huge pillar. In the sudden darkness Walsingham grabs an iron chain cemented in a pillar and they are quickly out of the boat, scrabbling in the ooze. It stinks of shit. They drag the boat out of the current and up into the darkest shadows where they hope to return to find it. Walsingham wishes he had eaten something.
Along the bank, there are some steps up to the cathedral precinct, but before they climb them, Walsingham stops.
“Quick,” he tells Fellowes. “Cut a strip off your shirt.”
He’s seen each of the men wearing armbands, simple white kerchiefs knotted around the muscles above their right elbows, presumably as a signal. They each had a white cross pinned to their caps, too, but there’s nothing Walsingham can do about that. He and Fellowes cut strips off their shirttails and tie them on for each other. When they are finished, they look at each other.
“Do I look Catholic?” Walsingham asks.
Fellowes manages a laugh.
“Enough,” he says. “But sir—”
He touches Walsingham’s arm, and Walsingham knows what he is going to ask and cuts him off.
“I know this seems insane, Oliver, and I would not ask you to do it if… if England’s whole future did not hang in the balance. But it does. If we cannot find our way to the cathedral today, then a great chance to do great good will be gone.”
He grips an imaginary thing, as if it were chance to be seized.
“What is that?” Fellowes presses.
Walsingham knows he owes his intelligencer something more than this vague assurance, but secrecy is his second skin. It is very hard to tell him more, and he must force himself to do so.
“Some information,” he begins, speaking quickly, knowing that if he stops he will never start again. “From the logbook of Admiral DaSilva.”
Fellowes’s eyes sharpen. He is about to repeat the Portuguese admiral’s name aloud in incredulity but stops himself. He looks very boyish, then—just a youth in a borrowed beard.
“Is it… what we have been looking for?” he asks softly.
Walsingham nods, as if not trusting words spoken aloud.
After a moment, Fellowes turns shrewd again.
“Wherever… wherever did you come by it?”
He means two things: How did you come by it without my knowledge? And: Can it be trusted?
“We can talk about this at a later date,” Walsingham says. “But for now we must retrieve it before we leave Paris for good.”
Fellowes is convinced. Good.
“Come on then.”
They start up the steps. Halfway up they meet blood running down, pooling in the worn stone treads before overflowing to the one below. They must step through it. At the top, they find a kind of hell: immediately there is a pile of naked corpses from which seeps the blood, pressed out of those below by the weight of those above. Beyond, between Walsingham and the steps of the cathedral, the precinct is turned into an abattoir where strong-armed men engage in a wild frenzy of slaughter and butchery. They hack at the living and the dead with cleavers, and halberds, and foresters’ axes, parting them limb from limb with a dedicated, competitive ferocity, using both hands, as if this were a saint’s day fair, and they do so to impress their sweethearts.
On the steps, above the worst of the blood, stand the massed ranks of clerics of Notre-Dame cathedral. They are in celebratory red, and they have brought out their monstrances, and while the thurifers swing their censers, the choir sings the “Te Deum,” but you can’t smell the incense for the blood, or hear the singing for the screams.
“Dear God,” Fellowes says, clamping his hand over his mouth.
More victims are dragged in from the surrounding streets by their hair, by their nostrils, by their feet. Some are already dead, some still screaming, retching, wailing, and naked. Spaced around the precinct are more berms of corpses, each leaking its spreading crimson skirt, and Walsingham feels his boots letting moisture in and looks down: he is standing in a great pool of blood.
“Come on,” he says.
They set off, making their way through the frenzy. Walsingham knows that he will never forget the grunts of the butchers and the sound of their cleavers in flesh. He will never forget the faces he sees: both killers and victims. He will never forget the charnel house smell of blood, shit, and sweat.
As they approach the cathedral steps he can hear the choir now, singing their thanks to God. The smell of the incense mingles with blood.
They pass up the steps and into the cathedral not quite unignored. A man—an actual butcher—from the kitchens of the Louvre, has taken a break from his work to refresh himself from a flagon of the thin red wine he likes to drink in the morning, and he sees the two men moving against the flow of all others. He thinks he recognizes the English ambassador from the time he paid court to the king and balked at eating horsemeat. He nudges his mate and picks up his cleaver, its blade blue black with blood, its handle gummy with gore, and they set off across the precinct, tracking bloody prints as they go.
Walsingham and Fellowes enter the cathedral through a smaller door inset in the larger west door. It booms shut behind them, and within the nave they are plunged into sepulchral silence. There is no one about until, suddenly, a priest, or some such, stands before them, with thin lips and a pale, shiny face like the new moon. Walsingham dips his fingers in the holy water and crosses himself in the Catholic style. Fellowes copies him. The priest seems reassured. Walsingham sees Fellowes has left a pink mark on his forehead. The door handle, he thinks. There was blood on the door handle.
He tells the priest he would like to pray in the chapel of Saint-Clotilde.
“It is shut, monsieur,” the priest regrets.
A coin is proffered. The chapel is open, but only very briefly.
The priest guides them to the side chapel on their left. They leave footprints on the flagstones. In the chapel there is a memorial to a long dead canon, and a tall window of fine colored glass. The small altar is covered in a cloth but is otherwise bare.
“What are we doing?” Fellowes whispers again.
The priest lingers to collect his next coin.
“Distract him, will you?” Walsingham asks Fellowes. “Only for a moment, otherwise we will have to kill him.”
They hear the door through which they came boom shut behind someone coming in, or going out.
Fellowes approaches the priest. Both speak Latin, Fellowes not too well.
“Confession?” he asks.
The priest’s eyes light up, and Fellowes follows the priest out of the chapel to be out of Walsingham’s earshot. Before he goes, Fellowes glimpses Walsingham bending to kneel before the altar. A dead-letter drop.
Fellowes kneels before the priest, and remembers the old words, and they come to him now, and when he has recited them the priest blesses him and starts the questioning. Fellowes has not confessed since Queen Mary died, but he can hardly tell the priest that. He makes something up, but the priest hardly cares; he wants to delve into the proper sins, those of which Fellowes is most deeply ashamed and Fellowes is reminded how intrusive the sacrament of confession is.
“Lust, my son?”
He is about to shake his head and deny it when he thinks—my God. Isobel Cochet.
The priest seems to read his thoughts.
“A woman?” he presses.
Fellowes can only nod. What did he expect? He hears footfalls in the church behind him. Stout boots on marble flags.
“Who is she?” the priest persists. Fellowes feels the priest’s breath gusting on his face, garlic and meat and wine. “Is she married?”
“No.” Fellowes laughs. “She’s a widow.”
“A widow?” The priest is disgusted. He does not want to hear of an old lady. But Isobel Cochet could not be less like that. Fellowes wants to proclaim that she is nothing like that. But as soon as he starts to think what she is like, all he can see is the flash of her smile, the curve of her lip, that questioning look in her eye. More than that, though: the shape of her throat, her shoulders, her hips, the way she laughs. The smell of her as she passes. My God, he thinks. He flushes scarlet at the memory of a loose strand of her dark hair in the spring sunshine on the river’s bank. He has only seen her a few times, always with Master Walsingham, always in the Louvre, though, no, once at the residence, in Saint-Marceau, and then once again, that time on the river’s bank. The moment he saw her, his life changed, and from then on, he was always aware that somewhere she was out there, sometimes close, sometimes farther away. A lodestone, if she but knew it, around which he rotated. There must be others besides him, he knows that. A fraternity. He feels no animus.
He wonders if adjusting his clothing will break the seal and sanctity of the sacrament? This is no time for that.
The priest wishes to know if when Fellowes thinks of her he spills his seed, as did Onan in the Bible? Another time Fellowes might laugh.
It is Walsingham. Fellowes turns.
“We must go,” he says.
“Wait!” the priest snaps. He claps a surprisingly steely hand on Fellowes’s wrist.
But Fellowes has just seen the two men looming behind Walsingham.
“Master!” he shouts.
Fellowes wrenches his hand free of the priest, sending him sprawling. He draws his sword. In a church? Why not? Walsingham too.
The two men they face are smeared and flecked with blood. One—with the cleaver—wears clogs. The other wears a leathersmith’s apron and carries one of those knives they use in slaughterhouses. Something purposeful with no name. Both have bloodstained rags tied around their right arms.
“I know you!” the clog and cleaver man shouts at Walsingham. Walsingham doesn’t know him, exactly, but can guess enough.
“Sanctuary,” Walsingham tries, reminding them all of their location. It is not clear if he means it, but the cleaver man is confused enough to need to look to the priest for guidance.
“They are English,” the priest says from the floor. He has bloodied his nose in the fall. “Huguenot.”
Fellowes has never cut a man deliberately, let alone killed one. But the clogged man comes at him so fast he has no choice. He leaps back. He flicks the blade from his right knee up across the man’s face. The man is left-handed, and he’d hoped to bring the cleaver down on Fellowes’s head. Instead Fellowes’s blade bites deep into his wrist and the cleaver flies spinning in the air to clatter to the ground well away. The man screams. Fellowes steps aside to let him blunder on a step or two and then he plunges the point of his sword into his liver. The butcher squeals, arches his back, then falls to his knees, nearly pulling the sword from Fellowes’s grasp. The man in the smith’s apron turns and runs.
“Damn you!” Walsingham cries as he sets off after him.
Fellowes joins him, but the man is fast, and running for his life. He cuts this way and that across the nave, nippy as a terrier. He crashes back out of the door into the precinct before they can catch him.
Fellowes and Walsingham crash against it. They exchange a look.
“Did you get it? What we came for?” Fellowes ask.
Walsingham pats his doublet and nods.
“Let’s go, then.”
“Not this way.”
They start back from the western end, running toward the altar. By now the priest is screaming and shouting. Most of the clerics are outside, watching the bloodshed, but there are still enough to come running to find the cause of the disturbance.
“We can’t kill him, can we?” Fellowes wonders. He has developed a taste for it.
“You may have to,” Walsingham says. “I am Her Majesty’s ambassador to the court of King Charles. If I am caught like this—”
It doesn’t bear thinking about.
“That’ll be the least of our worries,” Fellowes says, glancing over his shoulder. The west door is being opened, and men are forging through, and they can hear a great hubbub of voices without.
They both start sprinting. There must be a way out through the sacristy or one of the side doors in the transepts.
They hear a shout behind them and a great charging scuffle of feet as the crowd of Frenchmen push through the door and run down the nave after them.
Christ, Walsingham thinks, this has gone very badly. They may not live to find out if it was worth the risk. They stop in the apse under the spire, two rose windows on either side, the sun blasting through that to the south, but a breeze coming in from below that in the north. The side door: it is open.
They run toward it.
“Can you swim?” Walsingham asks.
“Not a stroke,” Fellowes admits.
“Nor me,” Walsingham says. “Always promised I’d learn.”
They are both breathless as they emerge into the shadows of the cathedral’s north side. Here, too, is another pile of corpses, this one being picked over by a crowd of women and boys, while two men wait to load them into the bed of a cart. Beyond, fifty paces or so, is a line of houses, and beyond them, the river again.
“Look natural,” Walsingham says.
Fellowes almost laughs. He tries, but it is hard, and their stiff-legged walk only attracts suspicion. It is the boys who look up. Even though both Walsingham and Fellowes have their blades drawn, the boys know weakness when they see it.
Walsingham tugs on his armband, to emphasize its presence.
“Huguenot scum!” he says, nodding at the pile of dead people.
But he can’t help but glance over his shoulder at the cathedral’s side door. The first of the Frenchmen is there now. He looks like the dead man’s older brother.
They start running again.
A street curves to the left, leading them westward. Merchants’ houses, three or four stories high, lean in to greet one another. Ordinarily peaceful enough. Today there is a chain across, manned by five or six men with those white crosses on their hats.
The men are working their way down the street, emptying some houses, leaving others, and right now they are pulling two screaming women and three children from one of the houses—one of the women is clinging to the doorjamb while a man repeatedly punches her—so they do not see Walsingham or Fellowes who slip around the chain and disappear into an open doorway.
Inside they close the door. There is a locking bar, which they drop. In the gloom they look at each other once more. There is nothing to be said.
They turn and run down the narrow hall. It’s a cloth merchant’s house, and his stock-in-trade is piled in one room along with various coffers as well as lecterns and benches for his apprentices. A low door gives out into a high-walled, brick-floored yard at the end of which: a privy. Two-seater. A drop into the river. Too small for a man to fit through. They are trapped.
Fellowes finally says it: “Fuck.”
He cannot help but look at Walsingham’s doublet, where he knows his master will have tucked the documents. They need to get rid of them. Imagine if the French got hold of them? England would be at her mercy.
But Walsingham shakes his head.
“Not yet,” he says. “Not until we have to.”
They run back inside. The French pound on the door. Dust falls from the ceiling and light blinks in the cracks around the doorframe each time they land a blow. Up the steps they go: one, two flights, then it is just ladders for the servants. Up they clamber, Walsingham first. The ceilings are lower, and the windows smaller, and the comfort less, the higher they climb, until finally they are under the eaves, in total darkness. Fellowes pulls the ladder up behind them, using it to smash through the slates, letting the shards crash around their shoulders. Light floods in. Two children are revealed in one corner, hiding behind a mattress: whimpering, huge-eyed, and the room smells of mice and fresh urine.
Neither says a thing.
Walsingham is first out onto the roof. It is turning into a very fine morning, though a fire has started to the south, in Saint-Marceau, and smoke hazes the air. He thinks of his wife and his child, and of the others at the residency. Sir Philip Sidney is capable enough. Walsingham crawls toward the front edge of the roof. Down below the scene is carnage, and while many men are pulling others from their houses—some alive, some dead—many more are waiting below, waiting for those who chased them from the cathedral to break down the door.
“Bring the ladder!” Walsingham instructs.
Fellowes hauls it up through the hole they’ve made, and they use it to climb up a wall onto the roof of an even taller house. From here they can see across to the north bank of the river, to the palaces and the castles, to the church of Saint-Gervais, where the bells still ring, and where down on the riverbank the slaughter continues. Men hunting men. More corpses pile up. Others are being pitched into the water.
There’s a narrow gap above an alleyway that only the most athletic might jump, but they cross it with the ladder—a slender confection of planks and nails more suited to the weight of a house maid, or a boy perhaps—which creaks and sags horribly as each man crawls across the alleyway. Walsingham slips and grabs the riser. He drops his sword. It spins down and bounces on the stones, fifty feet below, where two men sharing a flagon of something start and look up. They shout and go running out into the street to raise the alarm.
On the other side of the alley is a roof on which laundry hangs from a tired old string, and there’s a hatch but it is locked from the inside. The slates are hot under their hands and covered in bird shit. Pigeons erupt from unexpected places. On they go, relieved and even congratulating themselves on their progress, their ingenuity, when they hear the first boom of a gun, and a ball thrums through the warm air overhead. They stop and look at each other, and back, just as there’s another thunderclap, and the wall next to Walsingham cracks, showering them with fragments of brick. Behind them three men are ranged along the skyline, and more coming, powder smoke lingering above their heads. The one from the church leads the way, Fellowes sees, only he’s found himself a short-handled ax.
They drop behind a palisade and one after the other slides down another roof, their heels scrabbling against the slates, to butt up against a low wall.
Where the terrace ends.
“By Christ, what now?”
The ladder is useless and they can hear men scrabbling across the roofs after them.
Fellowes leans over the edge and feels sick with dizziness.
It is easily fifty feet to their deaths on the road below.
“We have to break in,” Walsingham says, and they start ripping at the tiles, prying them up. Fellowes cuts his hand, a deep gash across the palm. He curses but carries on.
The sun beats down, and even up here they can smell the blood from the street below. Or maybe it’s Fellowes’s. They keep pulling at the tiles, but each is held in place by the one above it. Fellowes makes a small hole, smashing it with his heel. There is another gunshot from the advancing Frenchmen. They duck but don’t see where the ball goes. Now suddenly there is a riot of men’s voices, much closer. They’ve come up through one of the other houses: the one with the laundry.
But now there is just enough of a hole to slither through into the baking darkness of the attic below.
Fellowes tells Walsingham to go first.
“I will hold them off,” he says. “They can only come in one by one.”
It is a good idea, but Walsingham will not allow it.
“You go first.”
Fellowes does, slithering through the hole they’ve made, feeling his way among the smoke-blackened rafters. He can hear rats squealing in alarm in the eaves and behind the wainscoting. He drops down onto the bare boards of the attic: straw and horsehair beds, a broken pot, a single shoe, and pigeons escaping through an unshuttered window. A moment later, Walsingham drops behind him and staggers a few paces.
“I’m getting too old for this,” he says.
Down they go. Fellowes leading the way. Fellowes knocks the ladder to the floor. This is the house of a well-to-do man of law—featherbeds and painted hangings on the walls, even this far up the steps—and the family are present, but they are pressed to gaps in the shuttered windows, watching the scenes below. Each turns and screams when they see the filthy, blood-smeared men in armbands, one carrying a sword. But Walsingham raises his hand to placate them. He and Fellowes hardly pause as they run stamping down the stairs.
The ground floor is given over entirely to an office, with one wall of shelves completely filled with rolls of paper; the shutters are drawn, and two men in sober suits are pressed to the door, looking very tense. Neither have armbands, but both have weapons: one a fine but useless sword, the other a rough but ready kitchen knife. Walsingham holds up his hands in peace. The men turn and stare openmouthed.
For some reason, Fellowes thinks they might have gotten away with it, and that if they somehow exit the back, say, and onto the road, they may yet return to the little boat and make it across the river, or float downstream to Issy, to safety. But then he hears a crash somewhere in the fabric of the house above, several guttural screams, and the thunder of footsteps down the stairs.
He turns and runs toward the back of the house. Walsingham follows. They run through a smaller study, where a shrill lapdog barks fiercely, and then a deserted kitchen that smells of bacon. A door out into the yard, and against one brick-built wall: a wood stack. Fellowes clambers up it, sending loose logs skittering below. Walsingham swears as one catches his shin.
Fellowes hauls himself up to straddle the top of the wall. There is a flow of men, walking to and from the bridge to the north bank. Some stop to watch. He indicates his armband.
“Huguenot scum!” he says, aping Walsingham.
The men are unconvinced. They still stand and watch. They are armed and very dangerous, looking for someone else to kill.
It’s Walsingham, below, still in the garden with his arm upstretched.
The running footsteps in the house are accompanied by bellowed shouts and desks screeching across the floors. They are coming through the house, this way. Fellowes leans down to haul Walsingham up. His cut hand throbs with pain, all the way up to his elbow. Walsingham scrambles up and over the wall. He lands in the street below just as the man they’d chased in the cathedral comes hurtling out of the house. He sees Fellowes on the wall and cuts that way. He is bellowing with rage and hate, his ax raised, and he’s followed by many others.
Fellowes swings his leg over and drops down beside Walsingham. Together they face about ten curious French Catholics, each with a band around his arm, and a cross on his hat. Each with a weapon. They have, naturally perhaps, formed a semicircle around the two Englishmen, pressing them to the wall. But they are not even the real danger. The real danger comes from behind the wall.
“Master Walsingham?” Fellowes says. “I think we had best say our prayers.”
“Oliver,” Walsingham starts, “I am sorry I have gotten you into this. There was no need—”
Just then the Frenchman from the cathedral appears on top of the wall. He is bellowing with rage, lunging at them with his newfound ax. Fellowes ducks and turns. If I can kill one more man, he thinks, let it be this one.
But before he can move, there is a boom, and the Frenchman’s head rocks back, and the ax spins from his grasp. When his head rocks forward again, there is what looks like a third eye in the very middle of his forehead. The man disappears behind the wall.
Walsingham and Fellowes turn back to the bridge. There is a closed caroche, fifty yards away, at the head of the bridge, and perhaps twenty men on horseback. A man stands upright by the coach’s driver, and the puff of pale smoke identifies him as the marksman. The crowd in the street gasp in awe and back away, while those in the courtyard behind are shouting and arguing to see who should next put his head over the parapet. The horsemen come riding forward, and the rioters scatter out of their way.
“Thank God!” says a relieved Walsingham.
They are King Charles’s personal bodyguard, in extravagant blue-and-yellow livery, well-armored with helmets, breastplates, pikes, halberds, and guns. Their captain is shouting and gesturing, commanding everyone to move away from Walsingham and Fellowes. Fellowes might weep with gratitude. He has never been so pleased to see anyone his entire life.
“But what in God’s name are they doing here?” he asks as they descend to the courtyard. “And why do they wish to save us? How do they even know who we are?”
“M’sieur,” the captain greets Walsingham with a lazy touch of the brim of his helmet.
“I am indebted to you, sir,” Walsingham says. “And especially your markman.”
Fellowes can feel his entire body trembling with relief.
“Don’t thank me, m’sieur,” the captain says. “Thank her.”
He indicates the caroche.
Fellowes peers. A window is lowered and a red-sleeved arm waves. It is not a summoning gesture, as he might have expected, but one of pleasure, of glee even, and the arm is long and slender and belongs to a woman.
Fellowes and Walsingham turn to each other.
“Great God in heaven,” Fellowes breathes.
It is Isobel Cochet.