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“Your answer when last I questioned you concerning Mary Norton was all summation,” Carey said, an edge to his voice hiding some knowing past that of our last congress. “I would now have the whole truth plain.”
I was back in that larger room that had set scene to our first meeting, having been summoned early from my bed back to Somerset, Topcliffe was seated behind a table toward one corner, many papers I could only assume being the accountings of his unholy arts scattered before him.
“My Lord?” I answered.
“That is a question and not an answer,” Carey said, now more stern.
“And a first sign of guilt,” added Topcliffe, “for those in my inquirey do often so evade, trying to find such news with which they can careful frame their answer next more to my liking.”
Topcliffe was to me this morning less fearsome, whether on account of his being out from his sordid lair and seeming in these environs now some familiar to be less exotic and instead plain that diseased creature he true was, or whether it be only that such real horrors as the night past had held made those previous imagined in his presence seem pale.
“If Baron Carey doth chose to question my honorable exercise of such offices with which he has charged me, then I will to him listen, me having found him honorable first, to learn how he comes to hold this new opinion, though I will call it plain false,” I said. “But I will have none of it from you, sir.”
Topcliffe’s face reddened some, but I turned from him to Carey. “I will gladly answer about Mary, but ask only why such answer today holds consequence that it yesterday did not, for I do true think her innocent and will not be careless with her.”
“Tell him,” Carey said to Topcliffe.
“My Lord,” Topcliffe said, “I advise that we share not with this common scribbler such as to which he has no claim, but instead have from him direct what he was summoned here to provide. As matters Papist now seem cloud your father’s passing, and as Shakespeare’s own faith, or at least that of his father, sure, can be thought in question, I would share careful our news, as we know not yet this plot’s scope or true direction.”
Clear, Carey had shared much with Topcliffe in recent hours, and only then did I note that Carey was dressed still in such as we wore the night past, and so had been not to bed but to here direct and likely in Topcliffe’s congress for long hours.
Carey brought both hands to his face and rubbed it slow in the fashion of one much wearied, and not in body alone.
“I have, I think,” he said, to Topcliffe, “heard sufficient from you on matters of faith, as your own is twisted in such fashion as God would despise it if he could recognize it. We are called to faith not in God only, but also in each other, at least as we have earned it. And Shakespeare has earned mine true. So tell him.” Carey sank hard into that chair near him, his hands again to his face, speaking through them. “And I would warn you both that I am wearied of having my orders questioned.”
“Very well,” Topcliffe answered, looking now to me. “What know you of the Rising of the North?”
“Little,” I said. “A Papist rebellion when I was a but a boy, some few dukes and earls hoping to strike down the Queen and have England return to Rome’s fold.”
Topcliffe nodded. “The late Baron Carey was general to those forces that did quell this foul business, and did help collect for our good Queen, whether on the field or after, such heads as made their vile allegiance to Babylon’s Whore instead of our sweet crown – Darce, Percy, Neville, some others,” at which Topcliffe paused to shift through his papers, bring one to fore, “the rebellion being in the north, where even today the stink of pope still scents heavy the air, and I will note that Stratford is some little north and the name Arden, your mother’s name, carries no small Papist taint, but this rebellion being north and near to York, the family Norton was deep involved, having at the time much holdings in those district.”
“Mary’s family?” I asked, remembering now the Yorkshire accent.
“The same,” said Topcliffe. “At the rebellion’s end, I was summoned to York to assist the late Baron in such investigations as needed to ensure we had this weed of treason by its root, and that weed was flowered thick with Nortons, some few of which did pay full with their lives. One so questioned was a Harry Norton, some attached to the family, but in that branching way of cousins and latter borns so that he was a distant twig to that tree and had shared little in its fortunes. But he did prove stubborn as I exercised my arts, and so I had brought forth his son, aged a decade perhaps at the time, and, when I applied full to the boy’s nose such instrument as I showed you this night past, the father did finally break and offer what little secrets he had, but which were some helpful in the furtherance of our mission.”
“Which would make this son near to forty now, and of the age to match our late assailant,” Carey said.
“And so this son was Mary’s brother?” I asked.
The serpent of smile that too oft did decorate Topcliffe’s face new appeared. “To be sure, no,” he said. “For in my ministry to Norton the elder, I employed another instrument of my design that attaches in full circle to the sources of man’s seed and does crush them slow but entire if the subject does not relent. Such children as he might bear would all would need be seeded before that night, and had he seeded Mary, she would number near thirty years now at least. His hand, too, did suffer some terrible in my office, so I was little surprised to learn that he had lost its service.”
“But our nosed friend, being forty at his dying, could easy have a daughter of Mary’s age,” Carey said.
It being my turn to sink to chair, being sudden unsure in my legs. “This all then revenge? The granddaughter seeking service in Somerset to have your father dead for his service thirty years past?”
Carey breathed out a long sigh. “If that were all, it would be enough. But sure you cannot think it all, not with some Spaniard at you last night, and with your friend dead.”
Topcliffe waved a hand over his papers. “Of these, it took only few to find such as who could claim your famous nose. But, having found him, we have been long hours over reports from my varied intelligencers as to these Nortons, Mary seeming curious absent prior to her sudden arrival in service at Somerset only this winter past, and her father, John by name, more absent still, it being long years since York, him being remarkable in appearance and marked in our files early as such Catholic as would bear scrutiny, and yet of either, until her service here, nothing. Or almost nothing.” And he drew out a single sheet. “A letter from a man that I keep in my employ to report on comings and goings or any curiosities of note in those districts nearest the river where we suspect the rot of recusancy still festers. It concerns an aging father, lost of a hand, new to the district, supposed from Cornwall, his village having been burned by the Spanish in that raid of this summer just past, so that they sought better fortune in the city.”
“I recall the raid, of course,” I said.
“The Spanish are sometimes curious in their intrigues,” Topcliffe continued, “and, being Papist, do love to plot foul. Not a few English who still suckle at Rome’s bosom have found refugee in Spain, and we have seen them at times returned to our shores as Spain’s agents. Having looked hard and found no evidence of these Nortons over long years, and finding it now easy and sudden in only these recent months, I do suspect these Nortons were to Spain short after York, Mary likely born there and raised from birth to this purpose, and that they were returned to England under cover of this Cornwall mischief.”
Carey now pushed himself up from his chair, standing purposeful with the stature of his office.
“And so, Shakespeare, innocent as you might think the girl to be, and full admitting that that, too, was my opinion, I will now have a full accounting.”