She was wearing red and blue. He had paid for the cloth—not a few shillings, indeed—but she was wearing it and it became rich only now that she did. She was a creature of soft flesh and warm blood and that is what gave the cloth its value. He remembered his mother in red and blue. His father had not been as rich as he, so the cloth he bought was coarser, though the colours were still strong. His mother used quantities of ornament to enhance the spectacle. Why did she spoil her appearance that way? He knew of no-one she wanted to please, only herself. Women thought strangely, like hens clucking in front of an open gate. But here was Idonia achieving what his mother could not. She had followed simplicity rather than the urge to preen.
He came and sat beside her in the coolness of morning. There was no wind but he could hear the odd fluttering of servants beyond the hall. This was his house and it felt good to sit in it and listen to other people being busy. He need do nothing but think of his fortune. Idonia breathed quietly beside him. Light sprinkled against the beams and dripped down onto the floor. Nicholas stretched out his legs and ran his palms slowly along the grain of his chair. A bird flapped away from the window.
He remembered the racket inside the Guildhall. What a contrast! In his house there was plenty of talk but it ceased when he appeared and was respectful when he invited it. Mostly. Everyone needed a home, though not all were granted one, and some had less than might merit the name. He thought of the creature in the alley. She was tying to make a home as best she could. Even she wanted a space that belonged to her and shelter from the rain. But London could not tolerate beggars on the streets, even if they were hidden under doors.
Everything was organised in the city. The courts dealt with crime, nuisance, debt, orphans, inheritance, widows, merchant disputes. The guilds, fraternities and religious houses helped with the sick and destitute. Family managed business, household and bodily needs. Custom told people how to behave. Anything that fell outside must be purged, as was John Constantyn. He could not sit for long.
Pieryne was playing games with Robert. She was supposed to be tidying the solar but he kept standing behind her and making her jump when she turned. She pretended to slap the top of his head and he ran around the furniture as if he were an outlaw.
‘Are you dull, master Robert?’
‘Catch me, Pieryne!’
Pieryne was still young but she probably did not want to waste her energy on tasks not allotted to her. She faced Robert with reluctance but the lines on her face would not hold straight. ‘I can catch you,’ she laughed and Robert was tumbling across the floor.
Pieryne put down the objects of gold, silver and pewter she had lifted to clean. Robert was a cat now, crawling through the rushes. Pieryne pretended she had a trap and pursued him with it. The cat yowled with delight but the trapper dropped her tool.
‘Robert, I want you. Come quickly,’ said Nicholas, who had been watching from the stairs. ‘Pieryne, clean him up a little since he seems to be on the floor for your benefit.’
‘I am sorry, Sir Nicholas.’
‘Pieryne couldn’t catch me.’
‘I don’t want you to go to school today.’
‘Why not? I’d like to go.’
‘Weren’t you afraid yesterday? Didn’t you hear the riot?’
‘Will there be another one today?’
‘I pray God will prevent it.’
‘Brother Simon locked the door and we carried on with sums. We heard a lot of noise and it was hard to think. Giles got walloped because he kept looking at the window. Mother sent John Fresshe to fetch me because she wanted me with her. I think she was scared.’
‘I hope it will be peaceful today but I had to do something yesterday that will make a few men angry.’
‘What did you do, father?’
‘I killed the man who started the riot.’
‘Did you fight him? Did you kill him with your sword?’
‘No, in the city we do not usually settle matters by combat, at least not in the chivalrous sense. Sometimes I regret it.’
God granted Nicholas his wish for a peaceful day. Pinkish cloud had taken the place of the white void of yesterday. The snow had gone and the city was damp and warm. The streets showed a dull flat sheen that shimmered on the occasional escape of the sun. Nicholas set out with Ralf and Jankin. Hamo dragged behind.
‘What will happen now, Jankin? Have we finally put them down or will all continue as before? ’
Jankin’s eyes darted sideways into an alley and then over a low wall into a shadowy yard. ‘There is more to come.’
‘John de Northampton is on his way to Corfe Castle. He won’t be loose in London for a while, if ever.’
‘His creatures are merely hid.’
‘That’s what I think, Jankin. If only it were not my lot to be mayor.’
Jankin’s face squeezed through a sequence of humours. First he was surprised, then annoyed, finally desperate.
‘Maybe not yet,’ said Nicholas hastily, and then with wrestled calm: ‘Maybe we will have peace for a while.’
Ralf followed behind Jankin. Nicholas dropped back to speak to him, after first checking on the distance to the rump of the party.
‘You have been working with Hamo…’
‘I do my best to explain things to him, Sir Nicholas.’ Ralf had shaped a face to suit the opportunity. It was one twitch away from several possibilities but all involved the failure of Hamo.
‘Don’t forget, Ralf, how uncommonly quick you are and be careful how you judge others.’
‘Then, Sir Nicholas, will you allow me more time from my own work to teach him his?’
‘I know the abilities of all my servants and I make my calculations accordingly. Stay with Hamo a little longer and you may find you are rewarded.’
He knew that Ralf often volunteered to sleep alone in a warehouse rather than at La Riole with his peers but that he observed them very closely during the day. He worked hard but avoided shared tasks. He was very good at grading wool, for example, but would rather shift sacks than submit to collusion in his judgment. It must be torment to him to have to teach Hamo.
Nicholas was keen to confer with John Philipot but there was somewhere else on Coleman Street he could usefully call on the way.
Thomas Wailand was reading from a roll when Nicholas entered his shop. Boil boy was at the counter, although the boil was long since lanced. ‘I will explain later,’ said Thomas before turning to the visitor. ‘I am about to leave, Sir Nicholas. Although I do have some information for you. The drapers have not stopped cursing since yesterday. They are daunted but furious.’
Nicholas could see that Thomas was rushing his preparations. He creased the corner of the roll as he stowed it away. He caught a sample of cloth on a splinter in the bench. Then he stood too quickly and looked likely to fall. Nicholas took the arm of his friend, who smiled but moved away.
‘Come and see me another day and then you can tell me why you did it.’
Nicholas had not had time to remove his cloak but despite his readiness he did not attempt to follow Thomas from the shop. Instead he stood at the counter and turned his ears to the higher level. Could he hear a woman’s step on the stairs? He waited while Ralf pulled his head with cool curiosity from the door but there was nothing to detain them that could be explained to such an alarming apprentice.
The party reached the gate to John Philipot’s house and was welcomed in. Other visitors were already seated in the hall and John was moving among them looking bright but perturbed. His health had recently returned and he was swelling back into city life. By contrast Hugh Fastolf was clearly unwell. His head was in his hands and he was moaning gently.
‘What is the matter, Hugh? Did they assault you?’
‘I went to the bear-baiting in Southwark. Someone was selling illegal liquor. I had a small amount. It must have been poisoned.’
‘How much did you piss in the morning?’ asked Adam Bamme.
‘Well, that’s the odd thing: I couldn’t stop.’
‘Must have been the poison.’
‘You did not hear what was happening on this side of the Thames?’ demanded Nicholas.
‘Not at the time but I have been enlightened,’ replied Hugh with wide eyes and a scalloped mouth.
‘Get the king’s approval, Nicholas,’ said John. ‘Then all is well.’
‘You took action,’ said Hugh. ‘That is more important than precisely what it was you did. These men are full of hate and without reason. They did not take your offers of peace so war is the only option.’
‘Will this silence them or stir them to worse trouble?’ wondered Nicholas Exton.
Nicholas had expected John to be alone so that could talk to him at length about the arrests and the execution. Instead there was this strange assortment of ears and voices: Hugh Fastolf, who was clever but vain, Nicholas Exton, who was an ally but a doubtful one, Adam Bamme, who had been an enemy until his recent change of persuasion. Nicholas was confounded and he told Jankin to take Ralf and Hamo out to the kitchen, while he prepared to sit and waste his time for while. Instead John grabbed his arm and pulled him aside. ‘You see what the current company thinks of your exploits. Now come and hear from someone else.’
He followed his host to the parlour behind the hall where he met with an astonishing sight. Half hid by the blur from the window was a figure wrapped in a dull, brown cloak: the scrivener Thomas Usk.
‘They know he is here but he won’t come out.’
‘How many apostates do you keep beneath your roof, brother John?’
‘I worked for John de Northampton and was paid for my skills, as is any man who must feed himself. What I wrote for him is not my heart or mind,’ said Thomas.
‘By you wrote it without horror in your face as I recall.’
‘Greater things concern me in my own time and I do not want to be lost to the chance of my occupation.’
‘What then are you besides a scrivener? Is there a real Nicholas Brembre aside fromthe grocer and the mayor?’
‘What we must do to survive may be different from what we do with love.’
‘I suppose you write verse on truth and beauty and have a message for the lost souls of London. I have heard as much.’
‘I know many things about John de Northampton and I will speak of them in court.’
‘I want to stop at Saint Antonin’s,’ said Nicholas. ‘The rest of you can continue to La Riole.’
‘One of us at least should stay with you, Sir Nicholas.’
‘You could probably spit and hit the house from here, Jankin. Who is going to accost me here?’
‘I was thinking of who might accost you where the spittle lands.’
‘Some things are reserved for my tongue alone, Jankin. Take my horse. There are other members of my family with whom I must share some privacy.’
Nicholas caught a flash of colour. There was a fox in an alley beside a pepperer’s shop. The fox had not seen him. It was turned away. Its body was soft and red, a back leg scratched its neck in quick catches. Full of fleas. Its features were sharper than its furry mass. It was quite easy apart from the incessant scratching. After a while it spotted him. He was still but it recognised danger nevertheless. It stared at him through pointy eyes along a perfect nose. Then it ran away. Animals were of no use if you could not eat them or work them. Foxes caused nuisance in the city by scattering rubbish and killing chickens. Nicholas should have killed it and would have tried to do so had he not studied it for too long. More likely than not it would have escaped him.
He hobbled into the churchyard and sat down on a low wall to nurse his knees.
The vicar emerged from the church and nodded at him. ‘Are you in need of my attention, Sir Nicholas?’
‘No, thank you, Father.’
‘Most likely,’ said Nicholas.
‘The church is here to intercede for you.’
‘Thank you.’ He would need to make his confession but Easter would do.
Nicholas slid along the south wall of the church to a point where he could feel the stillness of his children in place of the fury of the street. A figure slipped in beside him. ‘Don’t keep looking for me. Keep away.’
Nicholas was stupid with confusion. Who was this overgrown ghost? It was a ghost he had almost given up. ‘That is your desire?’
‘No, but it must be. Thomas is suspicious.’
‘He doesn’t seem suspicious to me.’
‘That’s because he doesn’t think it is you.’
‘Life is full of risks, otherwise it would be of no value.’
‘You speak of risks as of shame, a slap on the cheek. That is your life, Nicholas Brembre. I speak of starvation. Since I have known Thomas I have eaten well and I have been content. Would you fill my belly as Thomas does?’
‘If I were as free as he to do so.’
‘But you are mayor and you have a proper wife who expects all the goods to go to her.’
‘You share Thomas and his bounty with two others.’
‘We carve him up between us but in the brightness of noon by which all of us can see. Better there than in the shade of your wife’s ignorance, wondering if the money will arrive.’
‘What is it you expect in this life?’
‘Oh I want some pleasure, like you, but when I see that pleasure threatens more basic bodily needs, I put it aside for a differenttruth.’
Nicholas knew that she had tracked him through the cold morning until she had her chance. He felt warm to think of her care but numbed that she had claimed her release. She reached over and gave him a large last kiss which stayed wet on his lips for long after her body had shaded into the street.