Henry was a vintner and should know best about wine, but Nicholas also dealt in this commodity and could not help disagreeing with him. Henry became annoyed eventually, though his knack was not to apply the bellows to familiar flames, however sharp his cries to scorch more distant foes.
‘Why have I spent twenty years buying and selling wine if I have to defer to the judgment of a grocer?’
‘Would you prefer to have spent them some other way?’ Henry could try any trade and be likely to waste the years he spent on it. But he had enough luck to keep the riches he had gained through marriage and inheritance and a certain cheerful doggedness which convinced others of his utility.
‘I didn’t want to be a vintner. I wanted to be an aleconner. But I didn’t know it because there were no aleconners then. When was it they invented that wonderful occupation?’
‘Three years ago?’
‘More – the old king was still alive.’
‘No he wasn’t. The boy had taken his crown.’
‘Whenever it was I should have switched jobs. Spending all day testing ale would have suited me well.’
‘You don’t like wine?’
‘And you don’t like sailing down to Gascony where it is always warm and the women slap you in the face as soon as you look at them?’
‘That may happen to you.’
‘What do they do to you, Henry?’
‘They run away.’
‘What a distance there is between London and Gascony!’
‘I used to delight in my trips to buy wine. I am a good sailor and I always made sure I was comfortable on the ship. I took cushions with me and sat on deck when it was not raining. The sea is always different. If you fall asleep you find on waking that its colour has changed completely and its waves have doubled or halved in height. When it was wet I sat below and talked to the servants and to the sailors if they were idle. There is always interest in what other people say even when they don’t know it themselves. But when we got into harbour I lost my enthusiasm to the prospect of work. We must be busy in this world.’
‘And you must be the only merchant who is not thankful to step back onto God’s dry earth after praying and vomiting in turn for most of the journey.’
‘I send agents now. We are getting old, Nicholas. It would be nice to sit and watch the birds in the yard and have someone else pay the bills.’
‘Are you ill, Henry? If so your guild will help you.’
‘No, just weary. Don’t old men deserve children to take over their cares?’
The other guests were arriving: William Walworth, Nicholas Exton, Hugh Fastolf, Adam Carlisle, John Chircheman, Thomas Cornwalleys and finally John Philipot. They were there to discuss the crisis in the city and the congregation called in response. Four days after his mainprise at La Riole, John de Northampton had held a meeting attended by what seemed like all the drapers, goldsmiths and tailors in London, not to mention a serious number of lesser craftsmen. He was showing that there was a confederacy in the city that could overcome the mayoral party regardless of his own fate.
In response the mayor summoned the aldermen and common councilmen for a meeting on the Friday before Candlemas and specified the maximum number of representatives from the wards. It would be an immense congregation, a sight usually seen only for the making of the new mayor.
‘You are taking a risk, Nicholas, that the numbers will go with you and not against,’ said Hugh Fastolf.
‘The numbers are right. We will have our success and the future of the city will be secured.’
Nicholas read out the proposed ordinance on elections to the council. It began by noting complaints to the mayor of great tumult and peril within the Guildhall by reason of unqualified persons deputed to the council. In order to ensure that common councilmen were all of fair means and understanding, it proposed that aldermen should assemble their wards and charge them to elect their most sufficient men to the council.
‘Exactly what we want,’ exclaimed William Walworth. ‘Election by the wards.’
‘I didn’t think you would move so quickly, especially with everything else to deal with,’ said Adam Carlisle in a thin, slightly slithery voice.
‘There is a point here,’ jounced Nicholas Exton. ‘We need to do more than fiddle with the rules of the corporation. We need to get into the craft halls and the alleys and pull these people out.’
‘With hooks? Nets? Tempt them out with cakes, beer, women?’ Nicholas was impatient with impatience. ‘How do we know who is seditious and who a commonly churlish labourer or malcontent apprentice?’
‘Does it matter?’
‘Not to the fun of it. But if you have nothing to take to court they will slink straight back to their alleys.’
‘We can find something,’ continued Nicholas Exton.
‘For all of them?’
‘I think the mayor is right,’ said John Philipot. ‘We must sort out the structures of the corporation, not just jump in out of the fray.’
‘John de Northampton is mainprised by order of the king. Surely that will hold him,’ said Henry.
‘But that did not prevent him from calling his meeting. The duke of Lancaster will soon be back home from negotiating the French truce and John has excessive faith in his patron’s protection, even though he snubbed him over the election. He has the support of his own mistery and, whatever the state of the mercers, he has the goldsmiths and the tailors.’
‘How could we rid the world of the goldsmiths and the tailors?’ demanded Henry as he stood up to fetch more wine. ‘How can they claim to be citizens? Does God really keep places for them in heaven?’
‘Not for all of them, I’m sure.’
‘Why do they hate us so?’
‘The goldsmiths and the tailors have always hated us. It’s part of the history of London, written into their constitutions, engraved on their tableware: all members must hate the victualling crafts.’ Hugh laughed with his lips to his glass so that bubbles escaped the edge.
‘The goldsmiths hate us because we have taken over their position as bankers to the lords,’ said John Philipot. ‘Now that a new staple has been confirmed at Middelburg they see their last chance disappear. The tailors hate us because they are competing with us for the cloth export trade.’
‘I know that and yet I am still confounded by it. The guilds of London should surely work together. They were set up to benefit their members – they argue for their rights in the city and they provide for their needs when they fall into ill health or poverty – but it should not be to the detriment of the city.’
‘Henry, how is that you have lived through the years of John the draper and yet you have anger left and surprise?’ asked Nicholas Exton.
‘I have anger left,’ slammed Adam Carlisle. ‘It was not exhausted when I was sitting the Tower, though the cold and damp might have put it out.’
The meeting had wandered and become dishevelled, like a group of beggars who have stopped planning how to rob the bakery and are arguing instead about who ate what yesterday and why the rich have ruined everything.
‘I will act when there is violence,’ said Nicholas Brembre. ‘And not before I understand what John is brewing. I hear that the meeting was angry but obscure. It did not go beyond repetition of the familiar complaints against me, much as in some of our own gatherings. He has encouraged frenzy but not yet discharged it. Clearly he has some purpose in mind. I would rather react to whatever it turns out be than have a false fight now that might damage me more than it does him.’
‘Sounds like a lost chance to me. He is bailed not to hold covins and congregations. We could throw him into Newgate.’
‘If we can find him.’
‘I thought you knew the position of everything in London, Nichol,’ said Hugh Fastolf.
Sadly not, thought Nicholas. ‘Why would you think that?’
‘You appear in all sorts of strange places. I saw you coming out of Saint Mary Bothaw last week. All on your own.’
‘Don’t tell Idonia.’
‘What are you hiding from her?’
‘That I have been out in the city without an army to protect me.’
‘I thought Jankin was always with you.’
‘You take a surprising interest in my movements.’
‘So do others. Many are suspicious of you, which probably does not surprise. Some say you are a witch.’
‘Let them be careful then. And let us get back to the point.’
They talked until they were sure of the ordinance and the presentation of it at the congregation, Nicholas made sure of this. Common councilmen should be elected from the wards. There was a concession in terms of a maximum number of commoners from each mistery to placate those who feared domination by the major guilds, though domination by the major guilds was precisely what the mayor was seeking. He knew he had a majority in those. Not so the smaller masters who did not understand the need for clear authority.
‘If these measures are agreed we seal our advantage and our opponents will be weakened in future debate. In the meantime we must be prepared for a struggle on the streets.’
The wives had also come to Henry’s house and were now admitted to the hall from wherever they had held their own congregation. Idonia was wearing the lily ring and conversation had turned to Homerton.
‘Do you remember how cool it was in the garden at night when we crept out because we couldn’t sleep.’
‘We stood on the edge of the river and could see stars above and below.’
‘The night was so huge it felt like death.’
‘Remember that day when we lost ourselves in the fields beyond the house?’
‘Yes, we napped and then couldn’t remember which way to go back, though it should have been obvious. We couldn’t see the house because of the trees, but we could see the trees!’
They were talking of their childhood, the time before any of the men existed. The feeling of utmost youth still clung to the the house and its surroundings: it was a place of wonder and purity. It was true that there was tanning and fulling in the area, but you hardly heard it for the rustling of the trees. The fumes from the local industries scattered into the vast expanse of air above the marshes. In the city such an easy escape was rarely possible. Noisome substances boxed each other for space with the result that most were blocked at the level of the roofs and the air was sucked out of the streets. Here at Homerton you could breath freely and smell a myriad of scents, some foul but most fair. Many would be difficult to distinguish amid the city stench: trees, grass, cow dung, flowers of the meadow, damp earth, bird lime, flowing water, labouring sweat, pigs in their sties, wandering smoke.
It was also a place of peace and privacy. Only the grazing beasts marked your coming and going and there was room in the garden for the entire Stodeye family in three generations to uncurl in the sun. Or at least that was the case when John Stodeye was still alive. The third generation had been lost for some years now and its replacement awaited the marriage of Idonia Birlingham to John Doget.
Joan was explaining to the wives of the other men that the property came to her from her mother , passed into Thomas’s hands through their marriage, but would return to her as dower on his death. Was it odd that she spoke so lightly of her widowhood? It was certainly odd that a messuage could move so much in law while staying bodily in the same place. He cursed Thomas and instantly Thomas appeared at his side.
‘Women talk a lot but is there any reason to listen to them?’
Nicholas was often amenable to such mocking but not today and not with Thomas. ‘They have another role in life,’ he said sharply.
‘Then why do they pretend to ours?’
‘God made their bodies like to ours in most respects. Since they have the power of speech they feel they have a right to use it.’
‘Do you take any notice of what your wife says?’
‘Not always.’ What did he expect for a reply? ‘She doesn’t talk as much as the others.’
‘No, she doesn’t. She spends much of her time thinking about God. She is a good woman,’ allowed Thomas smartly. ‘But why produce a breed so like to man yet helpless at everything but maintaining the population?’
Idonia was not helpless at everything but maintaining the population. In fact it was in that one respect that she foundered. Otherwise she did what was expected of a merchant’s wife. He did not remember her failing to do so, struggling, fussing or breaking down. You did not notice she was doing things well because she was doing things well. How often was this the case in the population of the city?
The sisters were not all the same. If you watched them you could see how each, though of the same source, was shaped by a different chance. And Idonia was the best. Margery was cool to the touch though strong, like a metal alloy designed for function. Margaret was lively and warm but uncontrolled in her thinking, chaotic, like a mad woman sometimes. Joan was young. She flapped her wings like a half-grown goose and could not see beyond the end of her beak. Idonia was calm and full of sense but offered something else, something he could not easily identify. Sweetness. Neither hot nor cold but sweet.
The wine was good and it kept slipping out of the bottle and into the cups. It was right that Henry should pour it since it belonged to him. Idonia was enjoying herself talking to the women. They were intense. It was good to feel the blood in your veins, where God had put it, and would he really mind if there was some happiness in the world? Faces lurched into the candlelight – fine wax candles with which Henry had stuffed the hall. Men’s faces were bright for a moment then in shadow, disappeared. Life was like that, scary, like a fiend behind a tree, uncertain from one bell to the next what might jump out.
‘What are Idonia’s interests at present?’ demanded Margery.
‘I have no idea. She is welcome to them in my absence. I have been with her less than I should.’
‘Yes,’ said Margery. ‘That is my worry.’
‘Is it your business?’
‘No, but why would that stop me?’
‘If it does not there is little more I can do but than walk away.’
‘I am not your favourite sister.’
‘Nor should you be.’
‘Perhaps you prefer me to Joan.’
‘You are too clever, Margery.’
‘You of all are most like your father.’
‘You are tempting me away from the issue.’
‘Idonia is not like your father.’
‘And so she should not be left to her own amusement.’
‘That is exactly what I do because it works well enough. Idonia does not complain.’
‘Because she is not like my father and not like me.’
‘Henry has lost you!’ Nicholas pounced with gratitude on the sight of his host slithering on the rushes and swinging his eyes in all directions. There was a flash of amused alarm as Margery’s head turned away.
But he was left discontented. His mind kept drifting backwards and out over the rooftops. It was not secure in his skull. He was annoyed by Margery and he was annoyed by Thomas and he was annoyed by Homerton because he had left something there. He had felt it and was overwhelmed by it. Had he never had that feeling since? Maybe, but those times were not marked in his memory. It was the place that held it. He remembered a glowing space but from this distance the glow was tainted. He was uncomfortable, sad, guilty – such an odd reaction but so strong.
A merchant must be at ease with ugly things. So it is that he wishes his house to be a beautiful place, a sanctuary. In London that can never entirely be achieved because the world of tricks intrudes. Was this the reason for his anger? Did he think he could escape to Homerton? But now, with the mill, the peace would be lost?
Yes, it was probably that, but not that alone. There was something else about the place where the girl had walked in the water.
The city was full of striving. All hands worked or sought work and there was much to be done. Men bought and sold, designed and constructed, they reaped, slaughtered, cooked, served, cleared up. Work was the meaning of life. You worked until God called you in the hope of rest to come, though Nicholas was less sure of that.
Work, business, was full of peril. You never knew what you might have to do in its name or how strong were the forces against you. The weights hung on ropes around you and it was an art and a pleasure to dance between them until one dropped on your foot as you looked the other way. As long as work continued there was never rest.
There were some who did not work: beggars, lepers, rich sons of lords, women. It was not entirely true of women, but if they worked it was in another way. Just at the moment he was confused about which way that was. Then there were the few who reached an age of rest when their needs were met by their assets and they sat in what sun there was and contemplated their strange state.
Thomas was buzzing around on the other side of the hall. His pale face became the pale face of a deathly spirit flitting between the good things of the world and dropping its dung there. He, Nicholas Brembre, would resist it, though the sight of it made his head roll.
Henry grabbed his arm and sat with him on a bench. ‘How’s the wine, Nichol? Did I make a good choice? Do you want some more?’ He had a cup in his hand which he passed across. Nicholas was no longer angry. He smiled at the object that swung towards him. Henry’s happy face floated behind it. Henry was right: why should you want to do what you had to do? Why did you want to work at all? Why was work so tightly bound to being? Just because you had to eat did not mean that eating was the best thing in your life.
Henry’s wine was winding its way around Nicholas’ head. He looked at the women in the hall and in the corridor. They were shiny and tall with faces like painted plates. Any one of them would have taken his hand and done what he wanted behind the courtyard wall. Life was warm and responsive – why had he ever thought it might not be worth the effort? The lamps on the walls were like little suns. They glowed for him and he felt their fire within him, charging his arms and his legs and other things not mentioned in the great texts. His small domestic life retreated into the shadows. Idonia expected something of him but he didn’t remember what. The joy of flesh and blood was screaming at him and he smiled at the pain in his ears.
‘Idonia wants to go home,’ whispered John Philipot. How could he possibly hear what was said given the competition? But he did hear. Now the wine running in his pipes was cold like vines in winter. His body sagged and his eyes rolled sadly towards the door.
‘You are full of wine, Nicholas. Let me fetch Peter. He is with Idonia,’ said John.
May he be damned for his perfection. He was the one who was given Margaret, the beautiful daughter. It made sense because he was beautiful too, though Adam’s sex must show it in heart and head not skin. There are a hundred ways of getting killed in this life and John goes on ducking them. But Peter came to him as John had said and discretely straightened the sleeve of his houppelande, which had caught on a badge.
‘Oh God forgive me,’ said Nicholas as clearly as he could. A terrifying image had appeared before him, the image of John Pyel. Perhaps it was the real John Pyel. Had he come to the party? He had worked with John Pyel for many years, had been sheriff when he was mayor, and had heard more and more laughter at his expense as the wine leaked increasingly into the mercer’s gut. Each noticed at his own pace, but all eventually agreed that John Pyel was a drunkard. The drunkard carried on with life but it was a looping life that moved in and out of fettle. Today – if it was today, and if it was John rather than his phantom – his face was red and his eyes wet, he was swallowing spittle and unable to speak.
He sat down. It was Nicholas Brembre and not John Pyel who was red in the face. Peter took his arm. This was a gasping shock, like lightning in a clear sky. Nicholas could not remember this ever having happened before in their long lives together. His frame shrank to the touch but his flesh followed Peter out into the yard.