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12

There the story, such as I know it, of Sarah Blundy comes to its end and I can say no morethose who wish to disbelieve me can do so.

It remains now for me to recount the last portion of the story, and show what the Italian had as his business in England. I confess I do not find it important, for in comparison to what I had witnessed, the errors of men who squabble in such ignorance of the truth, cannot but excite the most complete disdain. Yet as it is both part of these events, and a cause of them, so I should set all down that I might complete my labors and rest.

I traveled to London the day after Sarah left Oxford, still very much in a mood of most profound dismay and reverie; it was Lowers idea to go, and he recommended it forcefully as a treatment for melancholy and brooding. A change of scenery, different company and a bit of entertainment, he insisted, would help shake off the sadness that had settled over me. I took his advice because my lassitude was such it was easier to do so than to resist. Lower packed my bag for me, walked me to Carfax, and put me on the coach.

And enjoy yourself, he said. You must admit everything has turned out better than you could possibly have expected. It is time to put it behind you.

Naturally, I could not do so quite so easily, but I tried to follow his advice as much as possible, and spent time forcing myself to visit people with whom I had corresponded over the years, trying hard to be interested in what they said. I did not succeed very well, as my mind kept drifting off to more important matters, and I fear I may have aroused some resentment among my colleagues because of a distance which they surely took as disdain and arrogance. Matters which ordinarily would have produced the liveliest fascination could generate no interest at all; I was told of the discovery of huge bones, turned to stone in a quarry in Hertfordshire, proving that the Bible spoke true when it said that once giants walked the earth, and I was less than fascinated. I was given hospitality by John Aubrey, at that time my good friend, but could display no enthusiasm for his ingenuity in discovering the purpose and nature of Stonehenge and Avebury and other such sites; I was invited to attend a meeting of the Royal Society, but turned this great honor down with ease, and never cared that I was not invited again.

And one evening, after I had been there but two days, I found myself walking past an inn in Cheapside called the Bells, and remembered I had seen the name in Colas chest, and felt the need to go in search of someone who had also known Sarah and seen something of what I had seen. And I had this great urge to know the answers to many questions, to understand the apparent chain of human events which had brought her end.

He was easily found, even though the innkeeperwhom I later knew to be a papistdid not know the name; all I had to do was ask for the Italian gentleman, and I was immediately shown to the grand roomoccupied by himself alonewhere he had lodged himself since his arrival.

His astonishment at seeing me was very great, but no more so than when I began to talk to him.

Good evening, Father, I said.

He could not deny it, could not bluster or protest or insist, for priests cannot do so. Instead, he stared at me in terror, thinking that I was sent to trap him and that armed men would soon be pounding up the stairs to take him to his martyrdom. But there was no sound, no noise of boots or shouts of urgent command, just the silence in the room as he stood by the window in shock.

Why do you call me Father?

Because that is what you are. I did not say, who else would go around with holy oil and holy water and a sacred relic hidden away in his belongings? Who else but a priest bound to celibacy would react in such horror when he realized the strengths of his carnal desires? Who else would secretly and in goodness give extreme unction to a woman he thought was dying, to intercede for her soul despite herself?

Cola sat down cautiously on his cot, and looked at me carefully, and with much thought, almost as if he was still expecting me to launch some surprise assault on him.

Why have you come here?

Not to do you harm.

Then why?

I wish to talk.

I felt sorry for putting him into such a dangerous situation, and did my best to assure him that I intended him no ill. I believe it was my face, rather than my words, which convinced him of my sincerity. Both can lie, but not in my case, for I have said already that the merest simpleton can see straight through me. Had I been lying, Cola would have known it, and yet he saw nothing of the sort on my face. So, after a long and very tense wait, he sighed and bowed to the inevitable, and asked me to sit.

Is your name really Marco da Cola? I feel I should know whom I am addressing. Is there any such person? I asked.

He smiled gently. There was, he said. He was my brother. My name is Andrea.

Was?

He is dead. He died in my arms on his return from Crete. I grieve greatly for him still.

Why are you here?

Like you, I can say I wish no harm on any man. Not that many would believe me; hence my subterfuge. Your government does not greatly approve of foreign priests. Certainly not Jesuits. He said it deliberately, eyes on my face all the while to see my reaction to his admission.

I nodded. You have not answered my question.

Mr. Wood, he continued, you are the only person to have divined who I am, and you are the only man of your faith I have encountered who does not react as if I were the devil himself. Why is this? Are you, perhaps, drawn to the true church in your heart?

Let no man say that his is the best and only road, for they say so out of ignorance alone, I said and the words were out of my mouth before ever I remembered where I had heard them.

Cola looked disturbed at thisA generous, though erroneous sentiment, he replied, and I hoped he would not query me too much on it, for I knew I could neither defend it nor even explain it. Either the bread turns to flesh, and the wine to blood, or it does not; it cannot do so in Rome, but not in Canterbury. Either Christ made Peter and his successors the foundation stone of faith, conferring on them all authority in matters spiritual, or he did not; Our Lord did not tell Peter he would have authority over all the world except for those parts of Europe which think differently.

But Cola said no more on this subject, glad only that he had the fortune to have been discovered by perhaps the one person in the whole country who felt no need to betray him to the authorities. Nor was my mind in the spirit for theological debate, even had I a chance of winning it. Such discussions had always given me great delight, but I was overburdened with the knowledge I carried within me, and in no mood any more for what I could now only consider trivial.

Instead he asked, with exquisite kindness, about the funeral of Anne Blundy, and I told him as much as was seemly. He seemed satisfied that his money was well spent, and expressed sorrow that Lower had behaved so ill.

You seem to have recovered from your distress at the girls death, he said, with a penetrating look in my direction. I am glad of that. It is not easy, I know; it is hard to lose someone who is important in your life, as she was in yours, and my brother was in mine.

And we talked of such matters, Father Andrea with such sense and kindness that, even though he knew little of what had occurred, he soothed my loss and did something to reconcile me to the loneliness I already knew would be my fate. He was a good man and a good priest, though a papist, and I was lucky to find him, for such people are rarely encountered. It is hard to be a physician of the body and even though many try, few have the skills or the sympathy for success. How much more difficult it is to give physick to the soul, to guide a man in sorrow to calmness and acceptance, yet Father Andrea was one who could. When we had finished, and I had no more to ask him and he had no more comfort to offer, I told him of my appreciation and decided to give him something in return by way of recompense.

I know why you came to Oxford, I said, and he spun round quickly to stare me in the face.

You were in correspondence with Sir James Prestcott, and those letters were lost when he died. They would greatly damage the cause of your religion in this country, and you wished to recover them so that they might not become generally known. That is why you searched the Blundys cottage.

His eyes narrowed. You know of this? You know where they are?

I know you need have no fear about them. I give you my word no one will ever see them, and they will be destroyed.

He was in two minds about trusting me, I could see, but knew he had no choice, and that he was profoundly fortunate. After a while he nodded. That is all I ask.

And you will be given it. Now, I must go.

He descended the stairs with me, resuming his disguise with each step, and while he had blessed me as a priest upstairs, he bowed to me as a gentleman in the street, before we went our separate ways.

I suspect you will never come to Rome, Mr. Wood, he said with a smile. You are not a man for traveling. It is a pity, for you would find it the most extraordinary of places, and there are many fine historians and antiquarians there who would delight in your company as much as you would delight in theirs. But. should the urge to travel ever come upon you, then you must write to me. and I will ensure you the finest of welcomes.

I thanked him, we bowed to each other one last time, and I walked off. never to see him again.

But I did hear of him; for I had gone no more than a few yards when I encountered my friend John Aubrey again, a man whose abilities as a gossip were as great as my reputation for such nonsense is undeserved.

Who is that man? he asked curiously, peering over my shoulder at Cola as he walked away. Are you not going to introduce us?

He is a physician, I said. Or at least, a gentleman interested in physick. Why do you ask? You talk as though you have seen him before.

Indeed I have, he said, still peering, even though Cola by now had disappeared around the corner. I saw him in Whitehall yesterday evening.

A man may walk without arousing interest, I expect.

In the palace itself? Not easily. And not when you are being accompanied by Sir Henry Bennet to the kings bedchamber.

What?

You seem excessively surprised by this. Might I ask why?

No reason, I replied hastily. I did not know he had such illustrious connections in this country. I am afraid that in Oxford we have all been patronizing him mightily as an impoverished foreigner, down on his luck. What is more, he never sought to enlighten us. We must have come across as very dismal people. But tell me exactly, when did you see him? And where?

It was late, well after dusk, possibly as late as eight oclock. I had the great boon of being invited to a suppervery private and informalwith my Lord Sandwich, and his lady, and a cousin of his who receives his patronage. A bumptious man who works in the Navy Office, forever discoursing on subjects he knows nothing about, but very enthusiastic, and quite likeable in his simplicity. His name, as I recall, is

I do not wish to know his name, Mr. Aubrey. Or what you ate, or the details of my Lord Sandwichs table. I wish to know about my acquaintance. You may tell me of your good fortune later, if you wish.

1 left his lodgings, you see. and walked back to my small abode, and when I was almost there I remembered I had forgotten a box of manuscripts that the chancellor had said I could look at for my work. As I was not tired and had scarce drunk a quart of wine, I thought I would read them before sleeping. So I went back and, rather than walking across Whitehall to the office, I went via St. Stephens yard. There is a corridor there, and at the end it turns right and leads into offices that contain my papers, while a left turn leads to a back entrance to the kings apartments. I will show you later on today, if you wish.

I nodded, impatient for him to continue. I got the papers I wanted, and tucked them under my cloak, then walked back. And coming toward me down the corridor was Sir Henry Bennetdid you know he is now Lord Arlington?and this man, whom I had never seen before.

You are sure it is the same man?

Absolutely. He was dressed in exactly the same fashion. The thing which attracted my attention as I bowed to let them pass before me was that he was carrying what looked like a lovely book. I am sure I had seen something like it before, Venetian work, very old indeed, in gold on a calfskin base.

How do you know it was the king he was seeing?

Nearly everyone else is away. The Duke of York keeps separate apartments and in any case is at St. Jamess with the kings mother. The queen is at Windsor with all her attendants. His Majesty is still there until he leaves in a few days. So unless Bennet was bringing this man, late at night, to visit a footman

And that, tantalizingly, was all I ever discovered for certain of the last few days that this Venetian spent in London, before he took ship for the continent once again. I cannot work it all out precisely, but it must have been a few days later that, again leaving by the same route, he was seen by Dr.Wallis and arrested. And all the while Sir Henry Bennet was organizing the search for him, and concealing the fact that he had himself taken him to visit the king in the greatest secrecy.

Clearly there were murky affairs of state involved, and I knew that the innocent never emerges with credit if he involves himself in such matters without good reason. The less I knew, the safer I would be, and although it was hard, for once, to rein in my curiosity, I nonetheless left London on the university coach that evening, and was glad to be away.



* * * | An Instance of the Fingerpost | * * *







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