“Norton? None that I recall sir, though I have truck with many each day and might never know their names.” I was speaking with a baker only a few doors from that building where I was yesterday told that Mary Norton’s father lived. It was my fifth inquiry of the morning, and in each case I received similar answer. If the lady yesterday had steered me true, and I did believe she did, then this Norton lived quiet and was of little note to his neighbors.
“He had but one hand,” I added, “having lost the other, I am told, at war in his youth. He would beg alms, I hear.”
At this, the baker stole a short glance to his wife, who stood to his left, moving just his eyes, as if he had thought better of the effort before he could move his head, and her features made a small shiver of quiet alarm that I also saw before she made her face a mask.
“I can’t speak for your district, sir,” the baker continued,” though judging from your dress and manner, it be finer than this, but there are many hereabouts some insulted by life, many lame, many ill.”
Clear he knew something, but clear also he wished not to say it, and seeming from fear. Not a little ashamed, I decided to prey hard on that fear.
“I’ll be plain, sir. I inquire in service to the Baron Hudson, son of the late Lord Chamberlain and soon to assume that post, and on a matter of some concern to his household, and I will remember well those helpful to my mission.”
The man’s face froze harder still, in that aspect one takes when afraid of what one’s features might reveal, so that, in trying to reveal none, one reveals much. His lips moved twice, as if to speak, but saying nothing, until, as is so oft the case when times call for both courage and guile, it was the wife who spoke, women by their station oft being hard used since birth and thus better knowing the delicate steps to that dance by which they may make an escape.
“Sir, We know not your business and prithee not tell us, as we are of simple estate, and the attentions of even a gentleman such as you, much less those of a baron, even if well meant will like as not fall hard on our household. If Norton be the cripple who did of late live in that room just short up this lane, then yes, he would sometimes beg of us such scrap of bread that we could in our limited capacity for charity offer, and we would offer it glad when we could. As to his begging alms, that would not be in these lanes, as he would be a fool to beg from beggars, but more like near to St. Paul’s. I should think those near there would know him best.”
My shame felt hotter still, as I could see the man feeling some belittled that his wife had to make such speech in his stead as he could not in his fear manage. They did clear feel at threat, though whether it be just the general alarm that coming to the attention of such persons who could with ease, and with intent or not, cause them ruin, or whether because of some specific knowledge that they had not shared, I could not know. But in any seduction, it is that first small surrender that matters, the first yes, and in admitting that she knew Norton, if only saying so in her attempt to send me off to St. Paul’s and away from this shop, she had said that yes and opened such small crevice into their lives that I would now lever wide.
“Madam,” and I turned also to her husband, “and good sir. My inquiries are most discrete in nature, and the Baron needs know only such that I learn, and not its sources. And as he, through my agency, is most grateful for any service, I ask again if this is your full knowing concerning Norton.” I place half a crown on the counter in front of the man, which I supposed was near to his profits for a month. “As I am just, I can fault no man for what he knows, as knowledge does oft come to us unbidden, even such knowing as may weigh upon us in its particulars, for we cannot always know its import at its gaining.” The baker took the coin and secreted it into the pouch in his apron.
“But,” I continued, “knowledge kept secret once such knowledge clear ought be shared, for that, I do count men liable.”
In taking the coin, the man had now admitted to greed as his wife had admitted to fear, and so, their honor already exposed as flawed, the man finally spoke plain.
“I would have thee know first, sir,” the baker said, “that in all matters I am the Queen’s good servant, and if the Queen say pray as thus and not as that, then I do so pray, for in truth such as us do not seem to suffer over much from God’s good favor whether we ask it in Latin or in plainsong, my sense being that God will judge us final by our hearts alone and not on the manner of our praying.”
“I call that wise thinking,” I replied, “as it is the same as my own.”
“All do not agree,” he continued.
“Sir, even with your threats and bribes, however polite made, I will not speak false against a man, even one dead. I can say only that there are some number in this quarter who feel that religion is the province of God, not of the crown, and that no crown had right to say that what was once right should now be wrong, especially when such change seemed mostly for the crown’s convenience.”
“And again I ask, Norton?”
“And again I say I cannot speak false. Only that I do know there have been some priests at times in the area, ministering to those who would hold their own religion, and that some have said that Norton counted in that congregation. But as I do not consider a man’s soul my province, I ask no man his allegiance where God is concerned.”
“You say, then, that there are some Catholics in this district?”
“Some, yes, and in every district, I would think,” the wife speaking, again, “if a man could see clearly one’s heart as he does one’s face.”
“But perhaps more here than in some other?”
“Sir,” the baker said, “for the rich, should a king say your religion will now be this and not that, much is lost in this world should they say other. But for the poor, their only hope for treasure lies beyond the grave, and if they hold their faith true, then to change for the crown’s blessing would cost them all they might have gained in eternity, and for nothing in this life. And so they do cling harder to the old faith, having nothing else to cling to.”
“And in that clinging, reject the Queen’s authority?”
The baker shook his head. “No sir, for they understand what is owed Caesar and what is owed God, perhaps better than those whose vision is cluttered up with gold and lands and goods. And so they are the Queen’s faithful servants in all save the keeping of their souls.”
I left a silence build, for as a quiet builds, some will rush in to fill it. But the baker and his wife spoke no further.
“He had a daughter, Mary, I am told,” I said. “What of her?”
“I do remember seeing him in the company of a girl on some occasions,” the baker said.
“He would remember,” the wife added, “the girl being most comely and just of that age where she might turn a man’s thoughts as well as his eyes.” Although she said it with some sport, and not in temper.
“As if any could turn my eyes from you, my love,” the man added in equal sport, the affection between these two being plain, and also their attempt, through humor, to make me party to it, and so inclined to think on them well, and not to their harm. And so I did.
“Also, I am told he had a son,” the wife added, “but some older than the daughter, and so of working age and not likely to still share his father’s quarters, being so sparse as they were.”
We talked further, but I had what knowledge they could share, having for my half crown learned only that the district harbored sufficient Catholic sympathies that it had the occasional service of a priest, which would be dangerous business for the priest, at least. I suspected, too, that the baker and his wife counted themselves Catholic, but could call that evil no more than I could call my own parents evil for trying to serve both God and Caesar, and for having suffered dear in the attempt, and for no conscience offense to either.
“I thank you for your honest congress,” I said on leaving. I stopped in the door and turned back. “This building where Norton kept his room. Would you know its landlord?”
“A Puritan named Miller,” said the baker.
I left his shop to continue my questioning unsure what Miller’s place here might mean. As the owning and leasing of properties was Miller’s only business, that he should own and lease them in this district, or any, was no shock. And yet, in this web of lands and titles and shares, it seems I could not touch any thread of it and not feel some other tighten around my own throat while distant and unknown eyes waited until I was well secured and their hunger had need of me.