He had, indeed, a certain excuse for going, for a despatch-rider had come down from London with papers for him from Sir Thomas Cromwell, and it was not hard to assume a serious face and announce that he was recalled by affairs; and there was sufficient truth in it, too, for one of the memoranda bore on the case of Elizabeth Barton, the holy maid of Kent, and announced her apprehension. Cromwell however, did not actually recall him, but mentioned the fact of her arrest, and asked if he had heard much said of her in the country, and what the opinion of her was in that district.
* * * * *
The drive up to London seemed very short to him now; he went slowly through the bundle of papers on which he had to report, annotating them in order here and there, and staring out of the window now and again with unseeing eyes. There were a dozen cases on which he was engaged, which had been forwarded to him during his absence in the country—the priest at High Hatch was reported to have taken a wife, and Cromwell desired information about this; Ralph had ridden out there one day and gossipped a little outside the parsonage; an inn-keeper a few miles to the north of Cuckfield had talked against the divorce and the reigning Consort; a mistake had been made in the matter of a preaching license, and Cranmer had desired Cromwell to look into it; a house had been sold in Cheapside on which Ralph had been told to keep a suspicious eye, and he was asked his opinion on the matter; and such things as these occupied his time fully, until towards four o’clock in the afternoon his carriage rolled up to the horse-ferry at Lambeth, and he thrust the papers back into his bag before stepping out.
On arriving at his own little house in Westminster, the rent of which was paid by his master, he left his other servants to carry up the luggage, and set out himself again immediately with Morris in a hackney carriage for Chancery Lane.
As he went, he found himself for the hundredth time thinking of the history of the man to whom he was going.
Sir Thomas Cromwell was beginning to rise rapidly from a life of adventure and obscurity abroad. He had passed straight from the Cardinal’s service to the King’s three years before, and had since then been knighted, appointed privy-councillor, Master of the Jewel-house, and Clerk of the Hanaper in the Court of Chancery. At the same time he was actively engaged on his amazing system of espionage through which he was able to detect disaffection in all parts of the country, and thereby render himself invaluable to the King, who, like all the Tudors, while perfectly fearless in the face of open danger was pitiably terrified of secret schemes.
And it was to this man that he was confidential agent! Was there any limit to the possibilities of his future?
Ralph found a carriage drawn up at the door and, on enquiry, heard that his master was on the point of leaving; and even as he hesitated in the entrance, Cromwell shambled down the stairs with a few papers in his hand, his long sleeveless cloak flapping on each step behind him, and his felt plumed cap on his head in which shone a yellow jewel.