Today's Reading

To the right of the enormous bow window was a pastoral scene with a spotlight trained on it. It might have been an antique. Alison could not really tell. Below the canvas ran a broad white shelf that stretched along the full length of the showroom. There were a number of smaller paintings displayed there, mainly portraits, and she knew at once that they were old, sixteenth century, to judge from the style and the type of clothing. There was King Henry VIII, painted at the moment his glorious, golden youthfulness was changing into something more watchful and inimical. When Alison had been a child, his name had been used to frighten them all into obedience: "Behave yourself or old King Hal will come to get you." When she had been young she had had no idea what he had looked like but her imagination had supplied the image of a monster. She had seen hundreds of pictures of him since, of course. The English were proud of their infamous, spouse-murdering monarch. Distance had lent the sort of affection to his memory that had never been felt in her own time.

It was odd seeing Henry now, a relic, a throwback to her past. It unsettled her.

Alison's gaze travelled on to the next portrait on the shelf, that of a woman, standing, her hands folded demurely in that style so
beloved of artists who wanted to persuade the viewer that Tudor womanhood was modest and decorous. The display light cast a shadow across her face. Alison strained closer to see. This was no one as instantly recognisable as Henry and yet there was a familiarity about her. It was a face she knew.

Mary Seymour.

Alison's breath stopped. There was a tight pain in her chest and a buzzing in her ears. Mary. After all this time.

She had never given up hope. It wasn't in her nature to despair, although she had come very close to it so many times. All the
history books—those that mentioned Mary Seymour at all—said that she had died as a child.

Alison had known that was not true but she had never discovered what had happened to Mary after she had left Wolf Hall.

"Help me," she had said to Mary all those years ago. "Help me to find my son. I'll come back for him. Leave me word..."

She had not begged precisely; her relationship with Mary had been too prickly to allow her to show that vulnerability. She had phrased it as an order, but Mary had known. There had been a bargain between them. She had helped Mary escape Wolf Hall and, in return, Mary had promised to help her.

Mary was the key to finding Arthur. She always had been and so Alison had held tenaciously to the belief that one day she would see Mary again.

And now she had.

Suddenly she felt faint with shock, trembling, tears pricking her eyes.

"Are you all right?" Someone was addressing her, a woman with a plastic rain hat and an anxious expression. She spoke in the tones of someone who feels obliged to offer help but sincerely hopes it isn't going to be needed. Alison forced a smile.
 
"I'm fine, thanks. I tripped over the edge of the pavement and winded myself for a moment."

The woman's sharp gaze scanned her face.

She thinks I'm drunk, Alison thought. She took a deep breath and pinned the smile on tighter. "No harm done," she said. "Thanks for stopping to check."

"Well, if you're sure..." The woman was already moving away, duty done.

Alison found that her hand was resting against the windowpane as though reaching out to touch the portrait within. She let it fall to her side and straightened up, pushing open the door and stepping from the dark street into the bright interior of the gallery. For a moment the harsh light dazzled her.

Out of it came the figure of a man, summoned by the bell on the door. He was elderly, greying, with a stoop and leather elbow
patches on his tweed jacket, but his eyes were bright, vivid blue, and he seemed to crackle with life and energy. Alison felt it at
once, that force of personality that some people seemed to project effortlessly, lighting up everything around them.

"Can I help you?" He sounded surprised that anyone should have dropped in on a wet December evening.

"That portrait of a lady," Alison said. "The Tudor one..."

"Beautiful, isn't it," the man said.
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