She was ready when they came, the three men. They smelt of damp wool and resisted staring but stole furtive glances instead. She walked to the door. Her sister sobbed, folding her into a wet embrace, while the nurse, bawling child in her arms, watched with a blunt glare.
Outside, the wind slapped hard in bitter gusts of mizzle. She felt eyes at the windows on her but refused to adopt a posture of shame. Shame is ravenous. If it is allowed in, it will eat away at you, to the bone. They followed the route towards the river, over slick cobbles.
‘Must we go by water?’ she asked. But they had orders to obey.
She became aware of a clamour, a frenzy of chanting and bellowing, and once through the gates she saw the crowd: red faces, bared teeth. Were it not for her armed escort she might have been torn limb from limb. The thought tightened her gut like a drawstring and she forced her mind off it for fear of losing her composure. But neither could she think of the river’s beckoning fingers and wondered which was worse: the crowd, a quick, savage battering, or those icy fingers about her throat?
Her husband was there, somewhere behind those sheer walls. She wondered if he watched her approach and could picture him, like a carved angel, gilded by the low winter sun.
A shadow broke from the throng, snarling. It spat. She lost her footing, skidded down the river steps, but was caught by one of the men and as good as carried the rest of the way down, into the waiting boat.
‘Hope you fall in and drown, bitch,’ someone shouted.
She took her handkerchief from her cuff to wipe away the trail of mucus, discarding it over the side. It floated away, bobbing, like a small white bird. The vessel jolted and her head cracked hard against a wooden strut. The pain was sharp, but she maintained her poise. She would not give her escort the satisfaction of seeing her suffer.
One of them seemed familiar. She racked her brain for his name, thinking it might give her some small advantage if she could use it. Again, the boat rocked, oars slapping, and she was thrown back in time: a vast hand pressing down on her head, the wet shock, the tide of panic and the quiet menace of his voice, You must learn to trust me – to resist weakness. Her breath stuttered, the guard looked over and she coughed, pretending irritation in her throat.
Approaching the bridge, she could feel the force of the rapids sucking them into the shadows. She shut her eyes, holding her breath, until they emerged on the other side where the tower loomed. Her husband was there, somewhere behind those sheer walls. She wondered if he watched her approach and could picture him, like a carved angel, gilded by the low winter sun. But she mustn’t think of him, mustn’t be distracted from what she was about to face.
The boat slid into the tunnel that ran beneath the outer ramparts, where torches reflecting on to the rippled surface made it seem in flames. She half expected to encounter Cerberus when they reached the other side. But they found instead a small man, starched with deference, who took her hand to help her from the barge. She imagined his, beneath its glove, as a pink paw with sharp claws to go with his rodent’s face.
He led the way up a flight of steps. Wind whipped around the walls, tugging at her clothing as she waited for him to unlock a heavy door, which fell open with a shriek. Within, the chamber had small windows on both sides and an unlit hearth from which a foul stench emanated, as if a pigeon had died in the flue. One wall glistened with damp and the chill made her shiver despite her thick cloak.
In Bacon she couldn’t discern even so much as a dilated pupil, and that disarmed her. Perhaps she was not quite as immune to fear as she liked to believe.
‘The attorney general will be here shortly,’ he said, without looking at her, and Bacon arrived as if on cue, blowing in through the door, like a demon, on a blast of wind.
‘Why is the fire not lit?’ he said, even before making his greeting. ‘I can’t be expected to carry out my business in this cold. . .’ he paused to cast a look her way that pricked the nape of her neck ‘. . . can I?’
A boy was sent for. He set down his bucket of hot coals on the flagstones with a clang and began laying the hearth while Bacon silently dissected her. His eyes hadn’t an ounce of kindness in them. She had no use for kindness, anyway. But she was accustomed to men responding to her appearance. In Bacon she couldn’t discern even so much as a dilated pupil, and that disarmed her. Perhaps she was not quite as immune to fear as she liked to believe.
‘I haven’t seen you since you hosted the celebration for my wedding.’ She wanted to remind him who she was.
‘Three years ago,’ he stated, seeming to imply that things had changed since then, and she regretted bringing it up.
Her wedding and the circumstances that had brought her to this place were inextricably linked. His expression remained indecipherable. With a pair of tongs the boy plucked a red- hot coal from his bucket, which caught the kindling instantly, flaring up. They became aware of heavy footfall mounting the steps and turned simultaneously towards the door. Her breath faltered.
‘This must be the lord chief justice now. He will be joining us.’
Coke lumbered in, wheezing. He smelt strongly of sweat, as if the steps had been a mountain, and ran his gaze slowly over her. She saw the hungry spark in Coke’s eye, lacking in Bacon’s. A young man, ledger tucked beneath his arm, slid quietly in behind him.
She took back control and offered them a seat, as if it was a social visit, noticing that Bacon wiped the bench before he sat, slapping his palms together to remove the dust.
The fire was smoking, stinging her eyes. The servant opened a window to help it draw, and Bacon snapped, ‘What do you think you’re doing, idiot? In this weather.’ The boy flinched as if he feared a beating and she suggested he look in the chimney for blockages. He prodded about with a long broom, and the half- rotted carcass of a bird dropped into the flames. They watched it burn. The smell turned her stomach.
‘So,’ said Bacon, once the boy had gone, clasping his hands together and stretching them out, palms turned forward until his knuckles cracked. ‘I suppose you intend to deny the charges.’
‘No.’ She met his gaze. ‘I’m guilty.’ His posture crumpled almost imperceptibly. It was clear she had surprised him, even disappointed him perhaps. ‘I wanted him dead.’
The clerk held his pen aloft, eyes wide. Bacon sighed. Regret, or something like it, began to wrench at her. But it was too late to turn back.
‘You are aware of the inevitable outcome of such a confession?’
She nodded. ‘I know I must accept the consequences. It is the whole truth.’
‘The whole truth – is that so?’ Bacon’s look penetrated her, as if he could see into her bones. ‘You may be clever,’ he narrowed his eyes slightly, ‘for a woman. But don’t think you can outfox me.’
‘I don’t know what you mean.’
‘No?’ He continued to scrutinize her, making her feel like the subject of one of his philosophical enquiries.
They fell quiet, the only sound the scratch of the clerk’s pen and the draught whistling through the ill-fitting windows.
It was Coke who spoke eventually, firing off a volley of questions.
‘Is it not enough that I confess but you must know how?’
He carried on, asking about things and people that seemed to bear no relation to the case, seeking links where they didn’t exist. Bacon seemed irritated by Coke’s line of query, thrumming his fingers on the table.
Eventually he interrupted: ‘And your husband? What was his part?’
‘He had no hand in it.’ The words exploded from her too loud and too fast.
Bacon spat out a caustic laugh but said nothing.
‘He’s innocent.’ She knew she sounded rattled and wondered if repeating herself made the declaration sound less credible.
And that was it.
They stood, the clerk clapped his ledger shut, and she was left alone, wondering if her husband had also confessed.