Night wind, and the wind-driven shadows of the winter night, stirred through the stone passages of the palace at Whitehall. A phenomenal silence hung like a dense mist wreathing from the river. It was so short a time since Christmas that you might almost have thought to hear the echoes of the revels, and on any such winter night, to hear something more live and sparkling than echoes and to see something more tangible than shadows. There would be the log fires spurting and the candles wavering, voices shouting, murmuring, laughing, the clash of platters and goblets, the fragile music of lutes and virginals and viols, the swirl and rhythm of dances with the circling whisper of women’s voluminous silks and the spring and thud of men’s velvet-shod feet.

Never in man’s memory was there a King who so loved revels as Great Harry, Golden Harry. In his sun-god youth and peerless prime, he was the center of them. In the hours when the shadow of his own black deeds lay deep in his secret heart, he encouraged them, dancing in a mad carnival to beat down the voices that he would not hear… There were a ball and masques the night he had the news that his first true wife, Catherine of Aragon, had died at last. The King and his Queen, Anne Bullen, came in golden satin. And it was not entirely the doing of the new queen with the black eyes who held him in thrall by her witchery. Partly, of course: because Anne Bullen could never miss a chance to do some ugly and flaunting thing that would insult the memory of Henry’s first wife or her daughter, the Princess Mary. But partly, too, because Henry must set music to sound, and feet to dance and voices to laugh loudly, to drown inadmissible memory.

When the piteous, wild girl, Katharine Howard, went to the block, the King rode out, fast and furiously, and it has been said that he wept as he rode. But there was a merry, comic farce put on at the court that night, by those who knew his mind and that loud laughter might blot out tears.

Even this very Christmas, so few weeks ago, the dances and the masques and the music kept it up; while the King could only look on now, huge and helpless, with those small, brilliant eyes of his glazed, and the small mouth in his heavy face pursed in the mask of a smile.

But not tonight. Silence was in the palace tonight, and in the silence a sense of expectancy that hung like a sword ready to fall.

Pastime and good company

I love and shall until I die.

Henry had written in one of his lilting songs.

And now he was dying.

At the end of one of the corridors a staircase rose, not an imposing flight of steps, a narrow staircase, turning at sharp angles. It led to the King’s bedchamber. Half the history of the time echoed on those stairs… They should have been — they may have been—thronged with ghosts tonight… These were stairs which the King did not tread with stateliness; he took them three at a time, bounding, striding, to his desires which rocked a kingdom. Now the man who had leapt up them lay in the room behind that great closed door, a huge, decaying hulk in the vast bed. He could not stir. He could scarcely lift the inflamed lids which hooded those little eyes.

A guard with halberd held rigid as a staff stood motionless at each side of the door. They might have been painted effigies. The door opened suddenly. The light from within the room caught the tapestries and a man’s figure stood in the half-opened doorway and murmured rapidly to the guard nearest to the opening. The guard nodded. As the door closed he sprang to his rigid stance again, his face blank.

Throughout the palace, and throughout every royal house in the country, were a host of such men and women, on guard, in attendance, before closed doors, in anterooms, at the further end of great chambers—of no more account, or at least no more to be noticed, than the figures in the tapestries. But they had ears and eyes to listen and see and brains to surmise and memories to hold, while history was in the making and crowns and kingdoms and heads and hearts were pieces on a chessboard, at the far end of a great room before a spurting log fire, or behind a shut door or within closed bed curtains…

In the few seconds, less than would make a minute, while the door of the King’s bedchamber stood ajar, there came the sound of a hoarse and strangled voice muttering thickly: “Monksmonksmonks …”

There also came a seeping of fetid air into the cold of the passage and stairway… But the two blank faces on guard did not move a muscle.

A sound of hurrying footsteps was coming through the silence. A young page hastening down the passage began to dart nimbly up the stairs, balancing a silver tray with a flagon of wine. Still without a word, the first guard lowered his halberd, barring the way. The boy stopped so suddenly that the flagon shook.

“I was s-sent for,” he stammered.

“I am to let no one in.”

“But it’s wine for the King. They said to hurry—”

“I had new orders just now. Only a moment ago,” came the answer, inexorable as the lowered halberd across the top stair.

The boy stood irresolute, his eyes fixed on the door. Then he backed slowly down the stairs, looking over his shoulder once to make sure of his footing but turning his wide eyes back again to the door as though mesmerized by what was taking place behind those oak panels. At the foot of the stairs he seemed to pull himself together and started off at a run.

He all but collided with a massive figure which came from the passage with long strides, the velvet cloak swinging from his broad shoulders. Lord Thomas Seymour walked with the march of a soldier; the splendid vigor of his spirits and health was in every movement of his tall frame. He was a noticeably handsome man, and, though he was within sight of forty years of age, there was still something of the boy in his blue eyes and in the full, generous curves of his mouth, which the rich brown beard didn’t hide, only emphasized.

Seymour laid a hand on the page’s full velvet sleeve and swung him round, and steadied the winking flagon with his other hand.

“One moment, lad …”

He lifted the flagon and peered at it.