* * *
I say “discovered for certain,” because I do know what happened with as near to certainty as is possible without having been present at that most secret of interviews. Now that I have read the manuscripts by Cola, Prestcott and Wallis as well, I take great pleasure in them, for the reasons behind Cola’s decision to write is plain and clear. All the purpose lies in the intent to sow uncertainty, and the dispute with Lower—real though it was to him—is presented simply to deflect attention from those matters he wishes to remain in the dark.
The manuscript was produced to establish the continued existence of Marco da Cola, who has been dead now for so many years, and prove that he, a soldier and a layman, came to England and was seen in Whitehall that day. Because if Marco da Cola was in England, the Jesuit Andrea da Cola was not. Therefore what I believe took place at Whitehall could not have occurred, because it could only have happened if a priest, a Catholic priest, saw the king that day. And at a time when hatred of papists is greater than ever, and any man tainted with the merest hint of popery is at risk, that is of the utmost importance.
Dr. Wallis came very close to seeing the truth; indeed, he had it in his hands but threw it away as incidental. I refer you to his manuscript, wherein he quotes his traveling picture dealer in Venice that Marco da Cola “had no reputation for learning or diligence in study at that time”; yet the man I met was learned in medicine, with a fine knowledge of many of the best authors, and an ability to discourse interestingly on the philosophies of the ancients and the moderns. Add to this the account of the merchant Wallis interviewed, who described Marco da Cola as “gaunt and thin, gloomy of attitude,” and contrast that with the stout, cheerful man who came to Oxford. Add to it Cola’s refusal to discuss soldiering in Crete when at Sir William Compton’s, then tell me what soldier you have ever met who would not talk endlessly about his heroism and actions. Think of those articles I found in his chest, and consider their meaning. Think again of his reaction when confronted with the power of his lust at Sarah Blundy’s that night and say how many soldiers you know who are so delicate. Truly the man was like one of those puzzles, so difficult to comprehend, yet so simple when the truth is finally known.
I knew by then that the book in my possession was one of the copies of Livy that Wallis and Cola both sought, and that it was the key to at least some of the letters that Jack Prestcott had handed over to me. Reading those scripts, however, was no simple matter; by recounting my ultimate success, I do not desire to undermine or in any way denigrate the achievements of Dr. Wallis.
At first I hesitated, and not only because I was certain that any knowledge thus won would do me no good; the events of those days still bore so heavily on my mind that I lost myself in lassitude for months. As is my habit, I consoled myself among my books and my papers, reading and annotating with a fury I could scarcely contain. The activities of the long-since dead became the greatest consolation, and I became almost a hermit, noting with only passing interest that my reputation for strangeness grew to the point that it became unshakeable. I am, I think, held to be a queer, unmannerly sort of fellow, ill-humored, irascible and of a sour disposition, and I think this character grew in those days without my even noticing. And it is true, now—I am dead to the world, and delight to converse more with the dead than the living. Being so ill at ease with my own times, I seek refuge in the past, for only there can I show the affection I am unable to give to my contemporaries who do not know what I know, and could not see what I saw.
A few things only kept me from my books, and so careless was I of human society that I hardly noticed how my acquaintanceship was diminishing. Lower slowly transferred himself to London and was so successful that (favored by the patronage of Clarendon and the death of many serious rivals) he soon became the most successful physician in the country, was given a place at court and took to having not only a fine house but even a coach with his family crest on the door—for which he was criticized greatly by those who thought it a presumptuous display. It did him no harm, however, for the wealthy and well-born like to be treated by those they consider of proper background. On top of all this, he even paid his sisters’ dowries and reestablished his family in Dorset, for which he was greatly admired. But while he published his great work on the brain, he never did any serious investigation again. All that he considered truly noble, the pursuit of knowledge through experiment, he abandoned in search of worldly gain. I alone, I think, understood the sorrow of this, that what the world considered success was, in Lower’s mind, waste and a failure.
As for Mr. Boyle, he also went to London and, I think, came to Oxford only twice more in his life. A greater loss to the town could not be imagined for, even though he was never of the university, yet his presence illuminated it, and brought it renown. That fame he took with him when he left, and in London he built on it incessantly with a never-ending stream of ingenuity which has guaranteed that his name will live forever. Locke also left, once he found himself a suitable sinecure, and he too abandoned experiment for the world, although in his case he became so involved in the most dangerous form of politics that his position is forever shaky. He may, one day, achieve fame through his writings, but he may equally become so swept up in events that he ends on the gallows if he dares return to these shores from his exile. That remains to be seen.
Mr. Ken, as was inevitable, gained the living that would have been Dr. Grove’s had that man lived, and thus was perhaps the only man to benefit from the tragedies I relate. He became a good man, of moderate religion and noted for his charity. All this came as something of a surprise to me, but occasionally, I feel, people rise up to match the dignity of their office, rather than dragging its honor down to their own level. It happens only rarely, but often enough for reassurance. And, for the general good of all mankind, he gave up playing the viol through being too busy with his duties, and we must all thank those who gave him a bishopric for visiting this kindness on God’s creation.
Thurloe died a few years after, and took his secrets to the grave—except for those which, I believe, are among the papers he hid somewhere when he first felt illness coming upon him. He was the strangest of men, and I regret very much not knowing him. I am convinced that he not only knew all the secrets of which I talk, he was instrumental in guiding many of the government’s actions in those days. This may seem remarkable considering his devotion to Cromwell, but he served that great man because he brought order to our poor country, and he worshiped order and civilized quiet far more than he reverenced men, king or commoner.
Dr. Wallis changed little, but became ever more irascible and violent as his eyesight deteriorated. Apart from myself he is the only one, I think, who is still living the same life now as then. Publications—on English grammar, on how to teach the mute to talk, on the most obscure and incomprehensible forms of mathematics which no one but he and a half-dozen others in the world can understand—flow from his pen, and from his mouth comes a matching stream of criticism and abuse of those colleagues that he always believes to be his worthless rivals. He has many admirers, and no friends. I have no doubt he continues his work for the government, for his skills in decipherment are as great as ever. Now Thurloe is dead, and Bennet has faded from power as all men of politics are bound to do, only the old king knows the true secret of how Wallis was deceived, lied to and made a fool.
And myself. For, on my own and unaided, I deciphered that letter which Wallis intercepted on its way to Cola in the Low Countries, and laid bare the entire secret it contained. It was not easy. As I say, I avoided even looking at it for a long time, and did not seriously engage myself until well after the plague and the fire of London, which filled Oxford once again with poor frightened people trying to escape destruction. I was frightened myself, and it was only when I was certain from long inactivity that the matter was forgotten by all concerned that I removed the papers from my secret hiding place underneath the floorboards in my room, and began to examine them.
That was only the start, of course. What Dr. Wallis could have done in a few hours took me many weeks, as I had to search out books in many places before I understood the principles involved. The simple explanation which Wallis gives in his manuscript would have saved me much pain and labor had I possessed it then, but he was the one person I could not ask. Nonetheless, I eventually grasped what was required through my own efforts. The letter starting the code every twenty-five characters was not the next letter in the text, nor the first letter of the next word, but the next letter which had been underlined. It sounds simple, and thus explained it is so—so simple a soldier on campaign could write it up in an instant, given the right book. That was the point of it.
And so, once this marvelous discovery had come to my mind, the whole secret of those letters was revealed to me after a morning’s labor. And it took many months more before I could believe what I had read.
I have destroyed everything, as I promised. Only one copy of the translation I made is in existence, and I will destroy that, along with this manuscript of mine, when I know my last illness is upon me. I have asked Mr. Tanner, a young librarian and scholar of my acquaintance, to arrange my estate on my death and this will be part of his duties. He is a good and honest man, who will keep his word. Let it not be said that I have broken faith with anyone, or revealed anything which should be kept in the dark.
The letter, written in code to Andrea da Cola by Henry Bennet, Secretary of State and (the greatest joke of all) employer of Dr. Wallis, read as follows, after the usual introductory remarks:
The matter discussed in our recent correspondence is now come to fruition, and His Majesty has indicated his desire to be received, as soon as possible, into the Church of Rome, this being in full conformity with his true faith and belief. I am instructed that a priest who can be relied on be sent in the most total secrecy to fulfill his wishes, and I very much hope you will take this task on yourself, since you are already well known to us and trusted. It will be understood that the greatest disaster would result should any of this become known; rather, a steady policy to loosen me ties which bind Catholics will be adopted, and hatred insensibly reduced over a period of years, before any public acknowledgment can be made. At present, all that can be done will be done, as a gesture of intent. The king will try to persuade Parliament to allow greater toleration of Catholics, and is confident that this first step will lead to many others, before the reunification of the churches can proceed. An emissary, Mr. Boulton, will travel to Rome once the reception is accomplished, to discuss the manner and style which will be needed.
As for yourself, dear father, you may travel in peace to this land; although no official protection can be offered you for obvious reasons, we will endeavor to ensure your safekeeping, and make sure your identity does not become known.
The king of England, the supreme governor of the Protestant Church of England, is, and has been since 1663, a professed Catholic, acknowledged in secret and taking the rites of the Catholic church. His chief minister, Mr. Bennet, was also a Catholic, and had as his secret policy the destruction of that national church he was sworn to protect. Far from a failed assassination attempt, Cola came to England to receive the king into the Church of Rome and, I believe, did so when he went to Whitehall that evening with his holy oil and his crucifix and his relic.
And all along, Wallis had his obsessions, and Henry Ben-net listened, and encouraged him, so that not only did the story never emerge into the light of day, it would be more obscured than ever. I am sure (but have no proof) that it was Bennet who ordered the destruction of Wallis’s servant Matthew to ensure the secret was guarded, for I do not believe that Cola could have done such a thing—he was not a man of violence, while the cutting of throats had all the hallmarks of the man John Cooth whom Wallis himself employed on occasion.
If I published this letter, or even delivered it in secret to someone like Dr. Wallis, the monarchy of this country would come to an end within a week, consumed by civil war, so great is the present public detestation of all things Roman. Wallis’s wrath at the humiliation he suffered would be so great he would whip up a campaign of such vitriol that the Protestants of England would soon be on the march, baying for the blood of another king. If I went to the king himself I could become a wealthy man, living in comfort for the rest of my days, for the value of this paper—or its continued obscurity—is beyond price.
I will not do so, for how paltry all this is to a man who has seen such marvels, and felt such grace, as I have seen and felt. I do believe and know that I have seen and heard and touched the incarnate God. Quietly, out of sight of mankind, divine forgiveness descends again, and we are so blind we do not even realize what inexhaustible patience and love is ours. Thus it happened, and has happened in every generation and will happen again in every generation to come, that a beggar, a cripple, a child, a madman, a criminal or a woman is born Lord of us all in entire obscurity, and is spurned and ignored and killed by us to expiate our sins. And I am commanded to tell no one, and I will keep that one commandment.
This is the truth, the one and only truth, manifest, complete and perfect. Beside it, what importance have the dogma of priests, the strength of kings, the rigor of scholars or the ingenuity of our men of science?
Mr. Tanner sorted all the papers, some of which Mr. Wood laid by in order to be burnt when he himself should give the sign. When he himself found himself ready to leave this world, he gave the sign, and Mr. Tanner burnt those papers which were put by for that intent.