I run ahead of myself. My eagerness to put all down on paper means that I leave much out which is vital; I should measure out my facts, so that all who read can discern the pattern of events with clarity. This, in my opinion, is what proper history should be. I know what the philosophers say, that the purpose of history should be to illustrate the noblest deeds of the greatest men, to give examples for the present generation of debased inferiors to emulate, but I do believe that great men and noble deeds can look after themselves; few, in any case, stand up to much close examination. The view is not unchallenged anyway, I think, as the theologians wag their fingers and say that truly the whole purpose of history is to reveal the wondrous hand of God as He intervenes in the affairs of man. But I find this a doubtful program as well, at least as it is commonly practiced. Is His plan truly revealed in the laws of kings, the actions of politicians or the words of bishops? Can we easily believe that such liars, brutes and hypocrites are His chosen instruments? I cannot credit it; we do not study the policies of King Herod for lessons, but rather seek out the words of the least of his subjects, who finds no mention in any of the histories. Look through the works of Suetonius and Agricola; study Pliny and Quintilian, Plutarch and Josephus, and you will see that the greatest event of all, the most important happening in the entire history of the world, entirely passed them by despite their wisdom and learning. In the time of Vespasian (as Lord Bacon says) there was a prophecy that one who came out of Judaea should rule the world; this plainly meant our Savior, but Tacitus (in his History) thought only of Vespasian himself.
Besides, my job as an historian is to present the truth, and to tell the tale of these days in the approved fashion—first causes, narrative, summation, moral—would be, surely, to present a strange picture of the time in which it happened. In that year of 1663, after all, the king was nearly toppled from his throne, thousands of dissenters were locked in jail, the rumblings of war were heard over the North Sea and the first portents of the great fire and the greater plague were felt throughout the land, in all manner of strange and frightening events. Are all these to be relegated to second place, or be seen merely as a theater set for Grove’s death, as though that was the most important occurrence? Or am I to ignore that poor man’s end, and all events which took place in my town, because the maneuverings of courtiers which took us to war the next year, and nearly consumed us in civil strife once more, are so much more important?
A memorialist would do one, an historian the other, but perhaps both are mistaken; historians, like natural philosophers, come to believe reason sufficient for understanding and deceive themselves that they see all, and comprehend everything. In fact their labors ignore the significant and bury it deep under the weight of their wisdom. The mind of man unaided cannot grasp the truth, but only constructs fantasies and fictions which convince until they convince no more, and which are true only until discarded and replaced. The reasonableness of humanity is a puny weapon, blunt and powerless, a child’s toy in a baby’s hand. Only revelation, which sees past reason and is a gift neither earned nor deserved, says Aquinas, can take us to that place which is illumined with a clarity beyond all intellect.
The ramblings of the mystic, however, would serve me ill in these pages, and I must remember my calling; the historian must work through the proper recitation of facts. So I will go back awhile to the start of 1660, before the Restoration of His Majesty, before ever I knew Paradise Fields, and shortly after Sarah had begun to work in my mother’s house. And, instead of windy rhetoric, I will tell how I visited the Blundys’ cottage one day to ask a few extra questions about the mutiny. As I approached down the lane, I saw a short man leave the cottage and walk swiftly away from me; on his back he had a pack such as travelers use. I looked at him with some passing curiosity, simply because he had come from Sarah’s house. He was not young, not old, but had a determined gait and walked off without glancing back. I only had one look at his face, which was fresh and kindly, though scored deeply with lines and weather-beaten like that of a man who had spent most of his life outside. He was cleanshaven, and had an unruly mop of fair, almost blond, hair which was uncovered by any hat. In build he was slight, and not tall, yet he had an air of wiry strength to him, as though he was used to enduring great privations without flinching.
It was the only sight I ever had of Ned Blundy, and I regret greatly that I had not arrived a few minutes earlier, as I would have dearly liked to question him. Sarah told me, however, that it would have been a waste of my time. He had never been open with strangers and trusted only slowly; she thought it very unlikely he would have been forthcoming even had he not been unusually preoccupied on what turned out to be his last visit.
“I would still have liked to have started an acquaintance,” I said, “as perhaps in the future we might meet again. Were you expecting him?”
“No, indeed not. We have seen very little of him in recent years. He has been always on the move and my mother is too old to go with him. He also thought it better if we stay here and make our own lives. Perhaps he is right, but I miss him greatly; he is the dearest man I know. I am worried for him.”
“Why so? I did not see him well, but he has the air of a man able to look after himself.”
“I hope so. I have never doubted it before. But he was so serious in his leave-taking that he frightened me. He spoke so gravely, and gave such warnings about our safety that I am concerned.”
“Surely it is natural for any man to be concerned for his family when he is not there to protect them?”
“Do you know a man called John Thurloe? Have you heard of him?”
“Of course I know his name. I am surprised you do not. Why do you ask?”
“He is one of the people I am to be wary of.”
“Because my father says he will want this off me if he learns of it.”
She pointed to a large bundle on the floor by the fireside, wrapped in cloth, bound up with thick cord and sealed with wax at every point.
“He did not tell me what it was, but said it would kill me if I opened it, or if anyone ever knew it was here. I am to hide it securely, and never breathe a word to anyone until he comes back to reclaim it.”
“Do you know the story of Pandora?”
She frowned and shook her head, so I told her the tale. Even though preoccupied, she listened, and asked sensible questions.
“I take it as a good warning,” she said. “But I intended to obey him in any case.”
“But you promptly tell me, before your father is even past the city walls.”
“There is no place here to hide it where it would not be found within minutes by a determined searcher, and we have few trustworthy friends who would not also be examined. I would like to ask you the greatest favor, Mr. Wood, as I trust you and think you a man of your word. Will you take it and conceal it for me? Promise you will not open it without my permission, and never reveal its existence to anyone?”
“What is in it?”
“I have told you. I do not know. But I can tell you that nothing my father does is base or cruel or means harm. It will only be for a few weeks, then you can give it back to me.”
This conversation—which ended with my agreement—may strike any reader of my words as strange. For it was as foolish for Sarah to trust me as it was for me to hide a package which might have contained any number of horrors to cause me grief. And yet both of us chose wisely; my word once given is sacrosanct and I never even considered violating her trust. I took the package away and concealed it in my room underneath the floorboards, where it remained undisturbed and unsuspected. I did not even think of opening it or going back on my promise in any way. I agreed because I never even considered not doing so; I was already falling under her spell, and willingly conceded any request which bound her to me, and earned her gratitude.
Of course, the package was that bundle of documents which Blundy had shown to Sir James Prestcott, and which Thurloe held to be so dangerous he searched for years to recover it. It was for those papers that, after Blundy died and Sir James Prestcott fled, Thurloe’s agents fanned out across the land, given any powers they wanted. It was to discover that bundle that Sarah’s house was ransacked, and ransacked again, her mother received the injury which killed her, her friends and acquaintances, those of her father and mother too, questioned closely and brutally. It was for this package that Cola came to Oxford, and it was for the same package that Thurloe steered Jack Prestcott and Dr. Wallis into hanging Sarah, lest she reveal its whereabouts.
And I knew nothing of this, but I kept it safe as I had promised, and no one ever thought to ask me about it.