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Authors: Kelly Gardiner

Act of Faith

BOOK: Act of Faith
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In memory of Woolly Walker

Contents

1

In Which a War Comes Home

2

In Which Prisoners are Not Themselves

3

In Which More Than a Ship is Wrecked

4

In Which an Orphan Finds Work

5

In Which a Messenger is Anointed

6

In Which a Journey Begins

7

In Which a Book and a Painting are Revealed

8

In Which a Widow Meets an Orphan

9

In Which a Promise is Extracted

10

In Which Someone Vanishes and a New Man is Born

11

In Which a Chase Begins

12

In Which a Crow Descends

13

In Which Danger Threatens

14

In Which a Procession is Interrupted

15

In Which a City Floats in the Sea

Dear Reader,

This book you hold is a treasure, of sorts, as is every book I have ever known.

I have made it for you — especially you — for reasons you will understand as my words unfurl before your eyes.

Turn these pages tenderly.

You hold my life in your hands.

Isabella Hawkins
Venice
Year of Our Lord 1647

1
I
N WHICH A WAR COMES HOME

My first love was a book.

It was a tiny thing, made by my father’s hand to fit into my own; inscribed in his strong, sloping letters and with a title page illustrated by him for me, with sketches of angels, horses bearing knights and red banners, roses and snowdrops and holly, and, in the centre, a unicorn.

I believed then that it was a picture of the whole world.

I remember every line of that book — even the creases in the pages — though it is many years since I held it. The year 1640 it must have been, or thereabouts.

‘In the beginning was the Word,’ he’d written on the cover and, inside, the first few words of Psalm 100: ‘Make a joyful noise.’

My second love was a house by a river, where the grass swept down to the water’s edge. Our home rose up unexpectedly amongst the trees, with room piled upon room, so that when the winds
came, the shutters, the shingles and even the walls shuddered. From my window I could see the spires of the colleges and churches of Cambridge, just beyond our yew hedge, and hear the university bells pealing the hours of each day. It was a town of faith and scholarship, and on winter mornings its streets and cloisters shone with frost and clear light.

My third love was a city — a city of sea air and white stone, of laughter and fine paper and mists and high windows.

But that is where my story ends, in the floating city on the other side of Europe from that house on the river where it began — with my book and my father’s words.

From those words I learned to read. Those letters were the first my father taught me to write, and teach me he did, for he had no sons. Only me. And I had only him.

I have no mother, and my father never spoke of her. I’ve no memories of her presence, only of her absence. In the mirror, I saw no traces of her face in mine. I bore my father’s fair hair, high cheekbones and blue eyes. Somehow, in my face, they became no longer his — still a little boyish, people said, but undoubtedly feminine. One day, perhaps, even womanly. But not like my mother.

My nanny remembered her, though. When I was tiny, Nanny whispered to me, late at night in the nursery, of the beautiful Italian girl who arrived one summer.

‘She was brave,’ Nanny said. ‘She never cried, even in the agony of childbirth.’

I did sometimes wonder whether, if I had never been born, it might have been my mother who sat in the chair by the fire in the evenings, reading to my father, helping him with his work.

My little primer was not, needless to say, my father’s greatest or most famous book. His other works were read by men in cities
and courts and castles — and yes, even monasteries — all over the kingdom and across Europe. His
Discourse on Liberty
sold more than five hundred copies in England alone. He was a famous man, my father.

‘Not quite famous enough,’ he’d say sometimes, when the household expenses outstripped our funds and Nanny had to go without her pay. ‘Infamy is more likely than fame.’

That was true enough, as it turned out.

Yet his words and ideas, hatched in the house on the river, roosted in the minds of scholars, parliamentarians, priests, princes and gentlemen (at least, those who could read). His thoughts met with other men’s ideas, whirling and clouding and clearing the air over Europe. Storms of ideas there were, then — thunderclaps and rainbows and God’s light beaming through pillared clouds.

‘The world is stirring,’ he said to me one midsummer afternoon. ‘England wakes in the dark.’

He thought he could change the world, that his words might reform the very nature of men.

I felt it, too. We all did — my father’s students, his friends and even his critics.

 

On Saturday evenings, the young men from Father’s college came to eat supper and drink ale and argue for endless hours about the state of the world, the country and their own souls.

I sat by the fire reading. The young men seemed to find this remarkable in itself.

‘You amaze me, Mistress Hawkins,’ Justinian Jonson said every single Saturday. ‘My sisters would no more pick up a book than fly.’

‘I wonder,’ I said, after many weeks of this, ‘if they have ever been given the choice.’

The boys laughed. They laughed at anything I said, even if it wasn’t funny, as if I were a trained monkey from the Spice Islands.

‘What on earth can you mean?’ asked Justinian.

My father glanced at me, no doubt placing a small bet with himself as to whether I would savage or soothe Master Jonson.

‘Had your sisters been encouraged to read,’ I ventured, ‘they may have found it more thrilling than flight.’

I curtseyed and left the room to a roar of laughter.

‘Wondrous, is it not, what the female mind can encompass?’ Master Jonson shouted over the noise.

Those young men imagined themselves engaged in brilliant discussions, week in, week out. Although my father questioned, refuted and dismantled all their arguments without mercy, somehow, at the end of the evening, each one of them felt like a genius. My father was testing them in rhetoric and ethics. He’d tested me in the same way every day since the age of eleven, and it had been many years ago that we’d left behind such debates. Those young men had no inkling of it. It wasn’t their fault. They hadn’t grown up with fathers like mine. Sometimes I envied them that. No doubt they envied me.

Every Saturday, I kept my eyes on the page before me, my mind on the words I was reading, but with one ear open to the conversation, waiting for the delicious moment when my father would say quietly, ‘Indeed.’ A pause. ‘But I do wonder, Master Jonson, if your reasoning is altogether robust …’

But I realised, long after Father knew it, that these were no longer merely rhetorical debates. It seemed as if the whole of the country was arguing about freedom and faith, kingship and power, votes and violence and the very nature of England: in the Parliament, in the streets of every city, and in houses like ours all over the countryside.
People found themselves holding fast to beliefs they would normally have considered dangerous or blasphemous or even illegal. Justinian Jonson and the other boys felt they were changing the world while around our supper fire — they announced as much, every week.

‘An end to tyranny!’ Justinian thumped the table so loudly we all jumped.

‘What is your meaning, Master Jonson?’ my father asked.

‘Free Englishmen can no longer support the King.’

‘Yet who amongst us is free?’ said Father.

‘We all are,’ said Justinian. ‘Or at least we could be, if we throw off the tyrant’s yoke.’

‘Tyrant’s yoke?’ I couldn’t help chortling. ‘What nonsense have you been reading?’

Father ignored me.

‘What would you have us do, Master Jonson? You want us to rise up against the King?’

‘Yes!’

‘You oppose any tyrants?’

‘Certainly. If this King falls, we oppose his son. And his son.’

‘But the point, surely,’ said Father, ‘is not that he is a king, but that he is a despot?’

‘Never, in hundreds of years, has there been such a —’

‘There you are wrong,’ said Father, ‘but we’ll set that aside for a moment. Your opposition, I take it, is to tyranny itself?’

‘Of course.’

Justinian looked around. The young men all nodded. One of them, the youngest, even shouted, ‘Hurrah!’

‘I quite agree,’ said Father.

They nodded even more enthusiastically.

‘Then you oppose any force that exhibits the traits of tyranny?’

‘As I said — any king, any prince.’ Justinian pushed his black hair out of his eyes.

‘But that was not the question.’

They fell silent. They knew by now when they had walked into a trap.

‘Explain to me, if you will, Master Jonson, the difference between a despot who happens to have been born a monarch and a despot who was not. Tell me how it is right for anyone to burn sacred books, as the Puritans have done in London this past month. How is that not tyranny? I would be pleased to hear your thoughts.’ Father sat back in his chair.

I left them to their debates, smiling as I closed the door behind me.

I took a candle from the sconce in the hallway to light my way upstairs. Even in my bedchamber, I could hear the boys’ voices raging below. If I had been born a boy, I would soon be old enough for university. I’d follow in my father’s footsteps, and dazzle Justinian Jonson with more than my mere ability to read. But instead, tonight, as always, I was destined to keep my eyes averted from the great debates of our times — at least, in public.

 

Many people agreed with my father, even his most radical books and pamphlets; some wrote to debate or enlarge upon his arguments; others wrote letters of violent disputation (which he loved). He replied to them all with long, fervent but always polite letters.

Or, to be more precise, I replied.

‘You know what I wish to write better than I do,’ he’d say, rubbing his eyes. Perhaps it was true. I don’t know. He only ever wrote himself to a few people — those for whom he cared deeply, and men with whom he shared his own secrets and dreams.

By the time I was twelve, I worked every day (even, God help us, on Sundays) on his correspondence. By the time I was fifteen, I could barely tell my own thoughts from his. It may be that there was no difference between the two. I never doubted his utter rightness, even when his ideas changed from one extreme to the other in the course of months.

I replied to most of his correspondents, became engrossed in arguments on his behalf, defended him on every point of reason or morality, and created friendships for him with men he had never met in Basel and Edinburgh, Venice and Amsterdam. They never knew it was not his pen that wrote their names nor his hand that sealed the wax.

I read their letters to him, of course, and the replies I had drafted. Sometimes he laughed aloud at my audacity; more often he corrected my sloppy logic. But mostly he nodded, smiled, and went on with his own work.

Together, we wrote pamphlets in his name — I still recall every word — that called for an end to religious wars, or argued against censorship, or demanded help for the poor. Mostly, though, they accused the King and Parliament of being fools.

‘The world is at odds with itself,’ he said to me. ‘There is no reason to it, no rhyme. But we are on the edge of an abyss of our own making.’

‘Yes, Father.’

‘We must make them see sense, Isabella.’

‘We shall try, Father. But nobody has managed it before.’

‘Have faith.’

Of course, the pamphlets caused more arguments, as he knew they would. They were sold on every street corner in London, passed from hand to hand, read aloud in taverns. Then my father
received even more poisonous letters, accusations, threats and hatred. To some, he was close to a heretic, damned to hellfire, simply because he had dared to call for peace.

I didn’t understand the anger. I was his daughter, after all, and perhaps we were as foolish as one another. He wanted change. We all did. But instead we got war.

The Puritans rose up against the King, who declared war on his own Parliament. Towns were destroyed, farms burned, castles plundered. Each army had God on its side, or so they said.

‘It has always been the way,’ said my father.

 

For us, the war seemed miles away. The seasons changed around the house by the river, the yews were crusted in snow and then browned by heat, the bells rang on the hour. We felt that no evil could ever come to that house or our quiet lives. So I believed. So did everyone. We were all wrong. The bells and the grass and the spires told a lie.

In summer, the young men drifted home and our Saturday evenings fell silent. When they all flooded back, like swallows in springtime, they brimmed and clamoured with news from the city.

‘There’s a Covenant,’ Justinian Jonson announced. ‘Declared in Parliament.’

‘So I hear,’ said Father quietly. He pulled his shawl tightly around his shoulders, even though the evening was warm.

‘We are all to sign it — to take an oath.’

‘Indeed.’

‘Everyone in England is ordered to worship in the same manner, regardless of his own belief.’

‘The Puritans believe that religious liberty can be imposed by
force,’ said my father. ‘An odd concept. Will you sign this Covenant, Master Jonson?’

Justinian shook his head. ‘I don’t know. My father says we must, all of us.’

‘You have your family to consider, of course,’ said Father.

‘My older brother has joined the army,’ Justinian said.

‘Which one?’ I asked.

As the words left my mouth, I realised again how absurd it was for one country to possess two armies fighting each other.

‘He has joined the King,’ said Justinian. ‘He declares it is his duty as a gentleman.’

There was silence.

‘I think it’s a good thing, this Covenant,’ said a normally quiet Londoner. ‘It will bring peace.’

‘Perhaps,’ said my father, but for once he said nothing more.

 

The war came to us a few weeks later. I can’t explain, even now, why we were so surprised when it knocked on our door — it had rampaged all over the countryside, all around us, for months.

It arrived in the shape of a letter — unsigned, scrawled in a hasty or untrained hand, the lines slanting down the page:

Leave Cambridge. Flee England. There is no refuge for you here.

Was it a threat or a warning? From enemy or friend? There was no way of knowing. It was not easy to tell one from the other in those days of swirling loyalties.

My father held the paper in his hand sideways, staring at it as if it were written in a foreign language. ‘How very odd,’ he said.

I took the letter from his hand and read it again. ‘Perhaps we should move deep into the country. Somewhere quiet where you won’t be disturbed.’

‘I don’t think we will find peace anywhere in England.’

‘Then we’ll find it somewhere else — somewhere safe — far away.’

‘I will not be chased from my home.’

He sat down at his desk and took up a book, as if to say the conversation had ended. I sat down opposite him, my chin in my hands. I watched for a while as his eyes raced across the lines on the page.

BOOK: Act of Faith
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