I went to see John Wallis, mathematician and man of God, as Thomas had urged; at this stage I knew little of that grand divine except that he was not well liked, although this I put down to the fact that he had been foisted on Oxford by Cromwell. Much of his unpopularity was due to the fact that, at the general purge of Puritans when the king came back, Wallis had not only kept his position but had even received signs of official favor. Many of those who had suffered for the king and had not been so rewarded resented this bitterly.
Rather presumptuously, I visited him at his home, for he was a rich man and kept rooms in his college, a substantial house in Merton Street and also, I gathered, a place in London. His manservant assumed I was a student wanting instruction and it was only with some difficulty that I gained an audience.
Wallis saw me immediately, for which favor I was impressed; lesser lights in the university had, in the past, kept me waiting for hours for no reason. Consequently, I went into his presence with some rising hope in my heart.
I suppose everybody has in their mind now an idea of what these people look like. The cleric, rosy-cheeked from too much high living; the natural philosopher, absent-minded, a little unkempt with the buttons of his tunic done up in the wrong order and his wig all askew. If there are such people, then the Reverend Dr. John Wallis was not one of them, for he was a man who, I believe, never missed or forgot anything in his entire life. He was one of the coldest, most frightening people I ever encountered. He sat perfectly still and watched me as I came in, indicating only by a slight nod of the head that I should sit down. Now I think more about it, there is something about quietude which is very eloquent. Thurloe, for example, sat very still as well, but the contrast could not have been greater. It may sound strange for me of all people to say it, but Thurloe’s stillness had a humility about it. Wallis had the immobility of a serpent as it eyes its prey.
“Well, sir?’’ he said in an icily soft voice after a while. I noticed that he had a slight lisp, which made the impression of the serpent even stronger. “You want to see me, not the other way around.”
“I have come to ask you a favor, sir. On a personal matter.”
“I hope you don’t want instruction.”
“Oh, Lord no.”
“Do not blaspheme in my presence.”
“My apologies, sir. But I’m not certain how to start. I was told you might be able to help.”
“By Mr. Ken, an MA of this university and…”
“I am aware of Mr. Ken,” Wallis said. “A dissenting priest, is he not?”
“He is trying desperately to be obedient.”
“I wish him well. He no doubt realizes we cannot afford less than total compliance in these days.”
“Yes, sir.” I noticed that “we.” It was only a short while, after all, since Wallis had been a dissenting priest himself, and done handsomely out of it.
Wallis still sat impassively, helping me not at all.
“My father was Sir James Prestcott…”
“I have heard of him.”
“In which case you also know that he was accused of dreadful deeds, which I know he did not commit. I am convinced that his fall was a plot organized by John Thurloe to hide the identity of a real traitor, and I intend to prove it.”
Again, Wallis made no move, either of encouragement or disapproval; rather he sat there, staring at me with his unblinking eyes until I felt a hot flush of foolishness come over me, and I began to sweat and stammer in my embarrassment.
“How do you intend to prove it?” he said after a while.
“Somebody must know the truth,” I said. “I had hoped, that as you were connected with Mr. Thurloe’s office…”
Here Wallis held up his hand. “Say no more, sir. You have an overblown notion of my importance, I think. I deciphered letters for the Commonwealth when I could not avoid doing so, and when I was sure my natural loyalty to His Majesty’s cause would not in any way be compromised.”
“Of course,” I muttered, almost admiring the smooth way the blatant lie dripped from his thin lips. “So my information was wrong, and you cannot help me?”
“I did not say that,” he continued. “I know little, but perhaps can find out much, if I wish. What papers do you have of your father’s from that period?”
“None,” I said. “And I do not think my mother has any either. Why do you want them?”
“No box? No books? No letters? You must find out where he was at all times. For if it was said he was in London, communicating with Thurloe, and in fact you can prove he was elsewhere, then your cause is advanced greatly. Did you not think of such a thing?”
I hung my head like a recalcitrant schoolboy, and confessed I had not. Wallis continued to press me, asking me the most absurd questions about particular books, although I do not recall the details. My way was the more direct one of confrontation, not nit-picking through letters and documents. Perhaps, I thought, Mr. Wood’s skills would turn out to be useful after all.
Dr. Wallis nodded in satisfaction. “Write to your people, and find out what they have. Bring it all to me, and I will examine it. Then perhaps I will be able to connect it with things I know.”
“That is kind of you.”
He shook his head. “It is not. If there is a traitor at court it is best to know of it. But rest assured, Mr. Prestcott, I will not help you unless you can provide proof that you are correct.”