Though his stomach was unsettled Nicholas felt a sudden desire for cheese. Cheese was not a particularly popular food so it would be difficult to find. There might not be any in the house, so he would need to send outside. But since it was the middle of the night there was no point to this. All the shops would be shut. There might be some in the store at the Guildhall since they had been building up supplies for the feast of Candlemass. He thought about calling for Peter but instead he got up himself and walked to no purpose the frozen floors of his house. His head was still tossing like a ship at sea and he did not really want cheese. The hunger for it melted to sludge revealing behind it a more obvious desire. He sat down in the hall by the embers of the fire. Why did he feel so bad? He began an audit of what had happened during the gathering at Henry’s house. It began well enough with the meeting but thereafter it faded badly. The details were gone. The cold air burned him and brought back instead that sad, mad sensation that went with Thomas’s woman, Beatrice.
The devil was tormenting him – not with the deed itself, which could not be undone, but with the reflection. It wasn’t even the lingering lust, nor the sadness at its loss of object, but the idea that her possession had been the pitch of his life. If he could imagine nothing but decline from that point, what did that say of all else that he had worked so hard to achieve?
The room of the cushions in Coleman Street swelled in his memory. Its softness and scent of lavender filled his skull and his breath was squeezed into the tiny space remaining. He wanted to be there again – just once, if that was all God willed. But God did not will it and had never done so. It was he, Nicholas Brembre, who had exercised his will. God had given him this chance to decide what was important. His wealth? His power? His influence in the city, on the continent, with the king? Or maybe… Was all of this the wrong way round? Success might suggest God’s favour but his son exhorted generosity, honesty, simplicity, love. Not much work in that, apart from the generosity, perhaps.
His skull was no longer bursting and his breath regained its space. There was no devil to tempt him, just the world as it was. He went back to bed.
‘Nicholas, you look as if you have been wrestling with fiends.’ The eyes stabbed back at the flame of his candle. Nicholas swung his head around the room as if the fiends had followed him in. Then he put up his hands to stop it swinging and searched for a story. ‘Who was elected mayor?’ he demanded. ‘Are they my supporters or drapers in disguise? The city has a shape…’
‘The Tower, the Guildhall and Saint Paul’s.’
‘Those are the highest points in the city and they give it its shape.’
‘What about the walls?’
‘Depends on whether you see it as a bird flying over or a squirrel on Notting Hill.’
‘Or a rat in a sewer. They are undermining me. Everything I say has its counter. Hugh Fastolf plays at skittles as usual. Nicholas Exton wants my job, I am sure. Adam Carlisle is the worst. He speaks so very quietly but it feels like he is going to explode.’
‘But what can I do about it?’
‘Then why wake me?’
‘Does it matter if you lose some sleep?’ He could not understand her question. It was shocking, unwifely. What did she mean? ‘You can help me get back to sleep.’
‘What if I can’t get back to sleep myself?’
‘Well, who is more important?’
‘Neither of us is important, Nichol. We are rotting flesh.’
‘Is that why they persecute me?’
He sensed the burn of his wife’s body as it rolled, though under the mass of bedding the change looked less than it was in truth.
‘Just because you are mayor does not mean that everyone must agree with you or that they know what you want. You have to tell us.’
‘But what I want is always the best option. Don’t people know what that is without being told?’
‘Remember the mayoral feast? Was it not a triumph overall? But you were disappointed because there was no swan. Did you tell me there had to be swan? I thought the best option was not to spend the money on swan but to spread it over the rest of the meal. Who says which plan was best?’
‘Idonia! You infuriate me with your arguments. Why did John Stodeye allow his daughters to think?’
‘How would we avoid thinking, whoever our father might be? Sometimes I would be pleased to do so.’ Silence. The shape in the bedding shifted a little and then there was silence again.
What does my wife look like? The mayor of London pondered this strange question as he pulled the covers tight to his throat. I can see her, I do see her every day. I see her so often I cannot see her. I will make the effort to look. But not now. Idonia had rolled back to her side of the bed. Not even the skin of her neck could be seen under the white linen cap.
Peter had been sent out early but was a long time in doing his rounds. Had he been set upon? He had refused an escort. Was he getting too old? His health had always been good and nothing lacked in his work about the house. Would Nicholas Brembre be alive on the day that Peter put down his cloth and shuffled off on pilgrimage or asked to be found an alms house beyond the walls? Nicholas would be old himself on that day.
‘You need him, don’t you, Nichol?’ said Idonia.
‘Guy will do.’
‘Guy is busy…’
‘Jankin then. He doesn’t need to sit at the books all day or sneak around the city. He can resume the ordinary duties of a household servant.’
‘Maybe he will need to go out after Peter.’
But Peter appeared without injury and Jankin escaped the mundane.
‘I found out very little, Sir Nicholas,’ said Peter after following his master out into the storehouse. ‘The man you mentioned, Thomas Wailand, sometimes stays at the Tabard but he has not done so for a while. They think he has somewhere else to stay but they don’t know where. They would take a message for him.’
’Thank you, Peter, for enquiring. Were your other tasks completed?’
‘Yes, Sir Nicholas.’
It was the day of the immense congregation, the twenty-ninth day of January in king Richard’s seventh year. The winter sky was undecided. An army of clouds, uniformed in white armour and black boots, rolled over a city striped by their shadows. Between them the field was blue. Would the arrows rain down or would peace shine through?
When Nicholas arrived at the Guildhall it was difficult to see, let alone move, through the mass of bodies in the yard. Hamo and Jankin pushed a way to the middle where the serjeants took over the body of the mayor. Richard Odyham and William Cheyne were waiting in the porch.
‘This is want you wanted,’ said William.
‘And now I have it, may it not be the end of me. How long will it take to get them all inside?’
‘Longer than they will stay still once they’re there,’ Richard replied.
Nicholas had managed the election but it had not ensured that the city as a body wished him well. You could win the argument and the poll and were left with seemingly small advantage. How could there be such a separation of worlds? But he knew the answer: because men fling themselves into heaps with those of like mind and interest. However many the piles of dung, their plurality is not enough to dim their righteousness. Nevertheless, time forks through the heaps. While a few men stick to their positions, most wander at intervals in search of a stronger smell. That was his advantage. Nicholas knew that with skill and good fortune he could bring sufficient wanderers back to sense. He strode across the floor of the Guildhall and mounted the dais. The immensity pushed in behind him. He turned to face it and clasped his ears. Everyone was speaking but no one was listening. Everyone was speaking to someone who was speaking to someone else. There seemed no point, indeed, in any of them being present. They might as well go home. Alternatively, they could all stay where they were but stop talking. Then calm would descend on the Guildhall and they might hear something worth the journey.
The recorder, William Cheyne, stepped to the front and signalled for the meeting to come to order. As the discord dimmed, Nicholas wondered if there were any way that he could conduct his life and business without having to speak to other men. Perhaps he could go to the corner of the yard and speak to Robert’s cat, who would listen to him for a while, especially if he brought some scraps from the kitchen. Unfortunately a man and a cat could not run a city. Should he, instead, have made his living from a simple craft that would allow him to hide in his workshop? But there was no excitement in that and little profit. If he was heading to hell he wanted greater gain in this world.
There was other corporation business to deal with – the size of the mesh of nets on the Thames, the harbouring men of ill fame by innkeepers, the organisation of the watch – but everyone was waiting for the debate on the ordinance concerning elections to the common council. John de Northampton was not admitted and John More was constrained by his role as sheriff but Richard Norbury and many others raised objections to the changes. A heumer stood to say that his craft had never been represented before the recent years of election from the misteries. Would a member of his craft ever be elected again?
‘There shall not be more than eight men from the each mistery,’ said Nicholas for the tenth time.
The complaints continued, some real, some carefully crafted, but it was clear the day was won. The heads swayed and turned like wheat in the wind. The storm whipped around the edges and over the top. Some ears were bent or even broken, most rustled and nodded gently. Nicholas nodded back. He was content. The ordinance was secure. The rebels were reaping heads elsewhere.
As the mayor stepped out of the Guildhall he faced the deluge of the black boots. Jankin came running, followed by Peter and the bear. Peter was wettest of all. He had come directly from La Riole to inform his master that his wife was missing.
‘Pieryne says she has not seen her mistress since terce and that she did not say she was leaving the house.’
‘Who has gone with her?’
‘Juliana is also missing.’
‘Pieryne is worried? It is not so long since terce. She often chooses Juliana as a companion now, although she should take a larger escort if I am expected to do so.’ He mounted his horse and pulled his hood over his head. ‘Don’t rush us, Peter. The streets will be heinous.’
There were two figures in the yard when they arrived back at La Riole. Robert was squealing and pointing to the sky. There was a rainbow spanning the roof of the house.
‘What colours can you see, Robert? In Latin.’
‘Ruber. How many colours?’
‘Seven. Ruber, flavus, what else?
‘Viridis, caer… I don’t know any more.’
‘Caeruleus, aurantius, lividus. But not in that order.’
‘Why did God send the rainbow after the flood?’ asked Idonia stepping between them.
‘The raven found an olive. The world had been bad and now it was going to be dry again.’
‘Go inside, Robert,’ said Nicholas, turning his son’s head away from the rainbow and towards the door. Robert trailed into the house, almost hitting the door frame as he tried to catch the colours for the last time. ‘Pieryne was worried and sent Peter to fetch me.’
‘She didn’t know where you were.’
‘Pieryne expects too much. Because she has been so close to me, she does not want to share my trust.’
‘She is jealous of Juliana?’
‘Juliana is not better than Pieryne as a servant. Far from it. But I like to teach her and I like someone young and less familiar. And it is better to leave Pieryne in charge of the house. She thinks she is being left out.’
‘She sent Peter out to fetch me because she is jealous?’
‘Yes. I will deal with it. Don’t worry, Nichol.’
Idonia was dressing for a dinner in Wood Street with the assistance of Pieryne. Nicholas could feel the fretting from as far away as the hall, where he sat as still as he could. The house spun with every twirl of his wife’s form and there was a sharp contraction of the walls whenever pin caught flesh. He knew that Idonia was not vain, but she worried when she was to be scrutinised by the world. Pieryne, meanwhile, was seizing her chance with her captive.
Nicholas had spent the morning in the Guildhall where he had reviewed the lists of armed men ready to keep the peace. Since the immense congregation he had issued a number of precepts: that elections be initiated in the wards, that all inhabitants of the city take an oath to preserve the peace, and that aldermen ensure that the good men of their wards be furnished with arms and red gowns in readiness for whatever might come. There were a few ‘good men’ he would like to remove from the lists but more harm would be done by challenging aldermanic licence so he gave up the idea and left for home.
He had returned via Saint Lawrence Lane and Trump Alley, where the trumpets still shone in their window, and onto Chepe, where the view was less bright. Since his election he had always been uncertain what would meet him when he entered that great space at the centre of the city. Today the markets were busy with traders, patrons, regraders and thieves. The shop fronts were open and stalls erected in the street. Goods of various kinds were nurtured and disported by workers in smocks. At one stall they worked at a pace, speaking no word that was not essential. At another the work was slack with much ribaldry and innuendo. A man was sitting with his back to a shop playing an instrument with strings. The notes came one upon another like a ladder. The sound was slightly harsh but intoxicating and the air was soon filled with a radiant weave, light and yet penetrating, which followed itself into the distance until all lines became one. Nicholas stopped to listen and would have waited to the end but he must return to La Riole to fetch Idonia.
Nicholas had gladly accepted the invitation from Sir Richard Waldegrave but now was beset by unease. Sir Richard was a shire knight, a former speak of the commons, who had lands in Suffolk, Essex and Northamptonshire, as well as the town house by Saint Michael Hoggenlane which they now approached. He was a king’s man, steward of the lands of Anne of Bohemia, who had sat on commissions into the poll tax, the riots that followed and many other matters. His links to the king had inclined Nicholas to value the invitation when it was made, so why was he now dreading the dinner? There was a certain distance to be expected between men of town and country, true enough, but the mayor’s main concern lay with his host’s history of armed combat, which was bound to be recounted and which would leave him little chance to compete. As a young man Sir Richard had accompanied Humphrey de Bohun, earl of Hereford, on crusade in Prussia, Attalia and Alexandria. Tokens of his travels could be seen around the hall and even without armour he held the shape of chivalry. He spoke to his wife as if she were a beauty belonging to another man, though she did nothing to assist him in this fantasy.
Sir Richard’s hall was large for a man whose main residences were stuck across the shires. The room was filled with furniture, including an unusual number of chairs cushioned by scenes from the holy land. There were displays of greenery and winter jasmine in stately vessels, beside which too many servants stood stiff and idle. The tables were piled with rich dishes and at the very centre sat a swan. Nicholas looked once only at the majestic beast and avoided sight of Idonia all together. He selected enough from nearby platters to sustain him through several crusades and settled himself in his saddle. He was surprised, however, to be spared any feat of endurance.
‘What do you think, Sir Nicholas, of the insurrection?’ asked the country knight. ‘Has the monster been cut down as thoroughly as it seems or could it growl again?’
‘I think there is insurrection everywhere.’
‘Ah! You compare your troubles in the city to the ravaging of the counties by swarms of peasants intent on killing the king.’
‘The monster has many parts,’ said Nicholas. ‘Although I do not believe they wanted to kill the king.’
‘But is there not a difference between a disputed election and a murderous uprising?’
‘Both are attempts to overturn authority.’
‘I sat on commissions dealing with rebels and I believe you did too. They were not men of reason, albeit there were reasons why they acted as they did. But, Sir Nicholas, there were so many of them it is hard to keep from trembling at what might have happened had the king not stood up against them.’
‘Indeed, and I was on Smithfield to see that remarkable deed.’
‘So I have heard. Tell me how it was.’
‘It was like being pulled to pieces and then stuck back together. There were so many rebels with such fury and desperation in their faces and we were in this huge open space with nothing but bodies beneath us and the militia we summoned seemed small for the task. My heart swung between fire and ice. I feared that I would die, but more than that I feared the wretched would win the day. Then the king spoke to them and I felt ashamed that I had been afraid.’
‘You describe the feelings of the knight in any battle of just cause.’ Here Sir Richard broke off to speak to another guest but he was soon gesturing for the glasses to be filled and insisting that the mayor drink with him. ‘You are becoming useful to the king with your position as leader of the city, as well as through your loans, which you have of course made for many years. I hear your name often around the court.’
Nicholas was used to throwing the hold of flattery but the room was warm and his chair unusually comfortable. He was impressed by the food and the conversation, and nothing that Sir Richard said was necessarily false. Indeed he was the model of the just knight who would always defend the truth.
‘The king needs men of loyalty and of stature,’ continued Sir Richard. ‘There are those in the nobility who should be more faithful than they are. Their high rank leads them to forget that it is not the highest of all.’
‘The order of the world is changing,’ said Nicholas, feeling eager to spur his host’s course with points of his own. ‘History speaks of three types of men: those who fight, those who pray and those who labour. But the men who now are needed are none of these.’
‘It is true that the men of finance and trade have become a major force in the realm. They have pushed through without acclaim. Meanwhile, few of the knightly class still wield arms and many of those who are clerics worship gold above God. And what of the peasants?’
‘I have always thought that peasants – labourers, artisans – want power as much as we do. You see it in the insurrection and you see it in their faces as they shirk their work and look aslant.’
Sir Richard turned to Sir William Wingfield, placed along to his left, whom Nicholas knew to be his close companion in parliament and Suffolk, which county they frequently represented. Red-faced Sir William was indicating by courteous gesture that he would like to join the conversation:
‘Your new class can also disappoint. I suppose you know that from your present troubles but I am thinking back to king Edward’s reign and the merchants who were impeached in parliament when he was almost dead. Service must be service, not theft or treachery. Did you know the men involved?’
‘I knew Richard Lyons,’ admitted Nicholas. ‘The others too. They pushed their advantages too far. A merchant does not always judge well the space beyond the rules.’
‘Were they harshly treated then?’
‘No. Their own actions brought them down. But there are many lesser copies of their deeds that continue unmarked.’
‘That is the case in the country as well,’ said Sir William. ‘Some poachers kill under the eye of the lord while others are hung and their children starve. There times when masters want peace and times when they want to terrify the natives.’
‘Are you comparing merchants to poachers?’
‘There are some similarities.’
Sir Richard’s wife Joan was thin and tall with a sharp face boxed by stacked veils. Her first remarks to Idonia were obvious and polite but when Nicholas looked back later the women were laughing and the sharp face had smoothed under the flexing veils. Idonia was pink of cheek and enjoying herself, as surely she deserved. What were they discussing? At one point Joan seemed to be teasing her guest about her ignorance of country life. Later, it was Idonia who told stories of the city to shock a stranger. On his final audit Nicholas failed to catch any particulars but repetition of the pronouns ‘he’ and ‘they’ gradually suggested to him that the women were discussing their counterparts in life – men – and deriving much mirth from it.
The efforts of Pieryne were not wasted. Idonia was beautifully dressed and her eyes were bright. She was enticed to try beaver and drink more than one cup of wine and she followed their host a fair distance into his explanations of exchange of coin, the diseases of sheep and the establishment of the Middelburg staple. Nicholas wondered if Idonia had after all been listening to what he said in the past when she appeared to be interested only in saints and souls or the doings of the Stodeye clan.
‘What does the king think about the staple?’ she asked Sir Richard. ‘Not the same as us, I suppose.’
‘The king is concerned to get his taxes. Whichever location – or none – will ensure the most money is his preference. Calais has ceased to be that place but he has hesitated over its successor. He has finally chosen Middelburg – or his advisers have. The king himself has no experience of trade and little of finance. But he does know how to spend.’
Sir Richard had invited other men of the city to his dinner. Adam Bamme was there enjoying duck in a creamy sauce. He was talking to William Walworth, who leant away from the goldsmith between vigorous loadings of crow. Nicholas Exton was smiling into his cup of wine while Henry Vanner tried to engage him in conversation on the subject of ale. John Philipot was present but looking as if he would rather be at home in bed. Margaret and Margery, separated by six places, were sending hand signs on the subject of their husbands: the one horribly pale, the other merely annoying. Between them sat Hugh Fastolf, his red hair fizzing at the edges. He was slight like an imp although he always ate twice as much as Nicholas on these occasions. His wife was large. Perhaps she had swallowed their larder. His face was fine and clean but tending to weasel rather than sprite. Was man an animal? There had been debate in La Riole on this subject. Surprisingly, Idonia answered ‘yes’. Nicholas Exton, beyond Margery, was made from stuff of the earth, not of the woods like Hugh. His face was rough like sandstone and his voice was choked by gravel. He had always been an ally of Nicholas and had sometimes done business with him. Once a decision was made he was reliable but there was always a grinding amidst the boulders before the edict emerged. His hair was all grey and had been for twenty years – so long that you imagined he had been an iron-headed child.
Though the other men were stretched out along the table Nicholas could hear what they said to Sir Richard because he listened to them in expectation and his hush spread through the hall. William Walworth said that the city would always support the king – although this had not really been the case in the past. Nicholas Exton said that the city knew where its interests lay – also a doubtful claim – while carefully avoiding specifying loyalty to the crown. The truth was that the city usually waited as long as possible before placing its wager – better still made no move at all. The needs of the city were peculiar and one monarch might suit them better than the next. Nicholas understood this. His commitment to the king must be his own.