“You may leave now.”
I turn, pulling the covers over me and close my eyes. I hear her rummaging to dress. Ten crowns neatly stacked sit on the bed stand, payment for her time and attention. She takes them, jingles the coins in her hand and replies seductively, “Do come again, Master Cromwell. Your talents lay far more than the Cardinal knows.”
“Just go, damn it.”
As the door slams shuts, my stomach churns. Why do I do this? I have a wife. My beloved Bess is loyal and true, pretty and soft, passionate and doting. Until a fortnight ago, she was my warm and caressing bed partner. Now on the road with James Edwards on route to visit the small monasteries to assess which ones we will close, the last two weeks I was banished to separate bed chambers at Austin Friars, a deserved punishment for straying once again from the mother of my children, the one woman in this world who truly loves me.
I toss and turn in the sheets. Sleep does not come easy, my mind swimming with thoughts of us, memories of our life together – and thoughts of her, her soft long and wavy brown hair, her curves so soft under the covers, her lilting voice, her gentle kiss, her perfect fit to me deep down inside, her reassuring words, and her steadfast devotion to our begotten. It’s no use. I rise from the hard bed, sweat pouring from the summer heat and my guilty conscience. I pour a goblet of wine, and drink it down fast, then another, and then another. The taste bitter, all I want is to dull my mind, dull the feelings, dull the pain. Numb is a good thing for a sinner, for the bastard I have become. No better than the man who spilled my seed and beat my mother until near dead before me, I crushed my wife down deep, beating her over and over again with my indiscretions, my infidelity, and my continual habit of making major life choices for us both with no regard to her happiness, with no regard to her opinions, with no regard to her well-grounded wisdom.
I retrieve a quill, ink and parchment and sit up to a side table, lighting two candles. My eyes are old and the wine settles in deep, so I squint up close and begin…
I beseech you to forgive me. I know I am but a scallywag, a cheat, a scoundrel and a sinner. I deserve you not, but I promise I will try. I promise with God’s help I will reform and treat you as the loving wife you are. I love you dearly, down deep to my soul. Please let me back in, as joined until death was our vow.
Your husband, Thomas
As I blow the ink dry, I feel tears well. Tears? The last time I felt tears, Walter kicked my mum in the stomach. Just a small lad, I cried hard, tears flowing. The bastard lifted me up, threw me into a wall, and bellowed, “Tears are for cowards. Cry no more or I will beat you into the ground — as grapes are stomped to wine.” I cried no more, ever.
As I rub my eyes and pull in quickly my composure, a loud knock hits the door and startles me upright, and then again.“Who ventures to my chamber so late? Do Tell.”
“Master Thomas, it is Ralph. I be here with Master James. Please do let us in.”
Ralph Sadlier? Oh My God, something is dead wrong for him to ride from Austin Friars. I rise, unlatch the door and let them in. James is as white as a spook, and Ralph flushed red. “Ralph, what is wrong that has you venture all the way to me? Are the girls alright? Gregory?”
“Sit down, Thomas. Please,” says James, as gentle as a pastor tends the bereft.
Enough of this. “Just tell me. Tell me, damn it.”
“Thomas, Ralph will tell you all just as soon as you sit down. Now please do sit, dear friend,” says James with a calm authority. Since when does he command me?
A little drunk, my mind swimming with dreaded possibilities, I do as told and sit. “Ralph, I beseech you tell me know why you came.”
My God, Ralph kneels before me, placing his hand on my knee. He breathes deep in, shoring himself for Go knows what. With this, I do same. Only the known be more torment than the unknown. “Master Thomas, the Mistress Elizabeth… she is… she is… gone.”
I look over at James. We tell each other all. He knows Elizabeth and I are estranged and why. “Ralph, where ever did she go? I beseech that you and Richard go find her. Do not tarry!” I pull the letter I left on the side table, now folded and wax sealed. “Give my Bess this letter, and plead she return to Austin Friars. Go now.”
“Thomas… Thomas, listen to him. Please man,” James pleads. He looks over to Ralph, nodding “Tell him all, and be clear about it this time, Ralph,” he says in a hushed tone.
“I am so sorry… so sorry, Master Thomas. Your wife… Mistress Elizabeth… on Wednesday morning, she rose sick with the sweat. By noon, she cried out for you, and then God cried out for her.” He begins tearing now, overcome. “She died quickly, Master Thomas.”
In shock, I find no words. I sit like a simpleton, mute, numb, stunned like a deer shot by arrow unawares. I feel my throat close tight as I push out the words I must. God help me. “Do the children know? Has anyone sent word to Cambridge for Gregory?”
“No Master Thomas, we await your wishes.”
I start wringing my hands to stop them from shaking. “I wish to ride home at first light. I wish to tell this horror to Grace and Anne myself.” God, how do I find the words to tell these two babes their mother is dead? “I wish Gregory be sent home forthwith with no mention as why.” My eyes burn as I hold the tears back once more, “And I wish I was with her, beside her, holding her, taken instead of her. I wish many things.”
“Thomas, I am sure Alice is with the girls and has told them nothing. You know my beloved wife. She will keep the girls diverted until you arrive. Do try and get some sleep, my friend. I will ready the horses and wake you before the birds call, and we will go home – together,” James says reassuringly. He be my best friend, my only friend in truth.
James looks over to Ralph, now standing, hands trembling and beside himself. “Ralph, please get word to His Eminence.” Ralph nods. He then walks over to me and places his hands on my shoulders as an attempt to comfort. Wanting nothing of it, I shakes them off.
“Do you wish for James or me to stay with you this night, Master Thomas?”
Dear Ralph, he really is more a son than ward. “No… no, thank you. I desire to be left alone. Go now, I beseech you.”
Both men look back at me, now both ashen gray. They bow respectfully, Ralph crossing himself for good measure. Quietly, they retreat. Alone with my thoughts, I stare at the letter I wrote to my Bess. God is punishing me. I richly deserve it. I will never see my beloved wife again. She resides in heaven, and I will travel straight to hell. The scriptures do prove there is no purgatory, no chance at redemption, no paid miracles Gregory or the girls can bequeath in my name to save my soul.
I set the letter ablaze with the candle light and stare as it burns before me. In the flame I see her. My Elizabeth stands in her wedding dress… in her child bed holding our first born Gregory, smiling with pride… in her Sunday best at services, kneeling in prayer… in her joyful glory, bending down to hug our daughters, both tugging at her feet… in my arms, sleeping gently against my chest after coming together, two as one.
The flickering flame, the stench of the burning parchment, kicks me hard in the stomach, harder than the old drunken bastard in a rage. Walter dead, and with no one to see it, I cry freely, raking sobs for Bess and for all not healed before, beat to the ground — as grapes are stomped to wine.
Hilary Mantel is a highly acclaimed, award winning English historical fiction writer of novels and short stories. A two time Man Booker Prize Award honored author of Wolf Hall and Bring Up The Bodies, both novels featuring Thomas Cromwell as main character, Hilary Mantel is currently composing the final novel of her Tudor Era trilogy, The Mirror and the Light.
Considered by many to be the world’s finest historical fiction author writing in the English language, Hilary Mantel’s first novel, Every Day is Mother’s Day, was published in 1985. Since then, Mantel’s exhaustive body of work includes a variety of stellar novels and short story compilations. Her commitment to and interest in composing compelling short stories greatly enhanced the genre’s popularity with readers and continued publishing viability.
Awards and prizes bestowed upon Hilary Mantel for extraordinary accomplishment in literature include the following: Shiva Naipaul Memorial Prize 1987, Southern Arts Literature Prize 1990, The Cheltenham Prize 1990, Winifred Holtby Memorial Prize 1990, Sunday Express Book of the Year 1992, Hawthornden Prize 1996, CBE 2006, Yorkshire Post Book Award (Book of the Year) 2006, Costa Novel Award 2009, Man Booker Prize for Fiction 2009, National Book Critics’ Circle Award (US) 2009, James Tait Black Memorial Prize (for fiction) 2010, Walter Scott Prize 2010, and Man Booker Prize for Fiction 2012.
A portrait of Hilary Mantel, the creativity of Nick Lord, is on display at the British Library. She is the only living author to be bestowed such honor.
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