Nicholas Brembre 3
Idonia was in the hall. She was short of breath as she met him at the door. The child was asleep by the fire. She had surely been sitting there with him just before, arms around him as if he could protect her through his sleepy warmth and ignorance. Now she wanted Nicholas but Nicholas did not know how to give her comfort. The ignorance of the child was distorted to mirror the knowledge of the man.
The gate should have been shut and the drawbridge raised. What was the point of raising a force of men if the city’s own special barriers were not employed as well? Did William want to limit his resources? Did he want to expose flesh when wood and stone could be the first obstacles?
Idonia pulled at his arm as he spoke, then took his face in her hands and turned it towards her. ‘Speak slowly. Tell me clearly what has happened. Are they coming?’
‘That I do not know. We have to guess. Who or what will come? What will they do? What should we do to stop them?’
‘What can I do?’
‘Leave the city. Go to Middlesex. Take some servants and the boy. He’s not old enough to be of any use to me.’
‘Will we be safer there?’
‘I don’t know, but you will be less likely to be trapped.’
‘Come with us.’
‘I’ll take you to the gate but I can’t go further.’
A messenger came from the mayor demanding attendance at his house. Nicholas was annoyed. Idonia had left the hall to gather items for the journey to Middlesex. Should he wait so that he could fulfil his promise to her? He had hoped for some quiet in his own place so that he could consider what to do. He wanted to pray in the little chapel so that he would be ready for his likely end.
William Walworth was a good man but needed to know when to stop being so. Nicholas Brembre had been mayor of London twice himself and held back his hand with great effort. He wanted to lend aid to William but not in disagreement, and not when there were so few hours left in the day.
He sent the messenger away with mess of words in vague assent. Then he walked slowly around the hall, placing his hand here on a golden goddess, there on the a silken cushion showing Christ arisen. The wide walls were hung with banners telling tales of love and war. They showed the way to a full life, virtue, knighthood – they were windows through to valour and passion. Yet they were hung in quiet days to give colour to a dull hearth of women and children and to the mute man in the background counting the money. What would it matter if all this were lost, if only he could show himself true to the moment, and also to God?
Smoke from the hearth followed up towards the hole among the eaves. Its passage was steady but unreal. The small summer fire had failed and this pale spirit had replaced it. He could bring back its heat in a moment, but who needed it? Idonia was almost gone. It was she only who felt the need of false warmth in June.
Four doors breached the walls around him: one to the courtyard, one to the solar overlooking the garden, one back to the kitchen, the buttery, and the pantry. The last door lead up to the bed chambers. He had lived in this house for ten years and had been bored enough with it for at least eight. A great deal of his wealth had gone into it for this little interest on his part. Idonia, on the other hand, remained delighted. He was resigned to relying on the weight of her satisfaction when trying to conjure some of his own.
Nicholas approached William’s house in Thames Street. He slowed by a row of small shops. True to William’s origins, three of the six were of fishmongers. It was nearly dark now but Nicholas could still see the scaly water stains beneath the shop windows, and the smell was little diminished by the shutters. None of these shops were used by William. They were all rented to lesser men while he dealt in myriads of earthly goods: wine, cloth, spices, from warehouses around the city. Even so was Nicholas’ own business as a merchant conducted behind the pretence of being a grocer.
Between the lowly shops lurked a gateway, whose stone frame was carved with Christ the fisherman. This was the entrance to William’s private world. In the courtyard there were castles of crates, surrounded by imprints in the earth from hard-pressed feet. Would these feet be willing to carry and stack as well tomorrow as they had for all the years before? If the rebels took over the city, if disorder came, how long would this house of wood remain? How much would still be here beside the earth and the stone carving of the fishermen?
Nicholas followed a servant into the hall.
‘We are not staying here, Nicholas. I am told the king has arrived from Windsor and is at the Tower.’
‘Have the rebels been sighted?’ Nicholas sat on a bench by the books. William had many books, more than a bishop and perhaps more than a king, especially if only those that were read were counted. ‘The bridge is open,’ he urged, without waiting for his friend to answer.
‘The bridge is shut.’ William waited for the drum-like echoes of the words to die. ‘I know you Nicholas. I know your need to force the cause and your intolerance of failure. But sometimes it is easier to work in the dark, when bodies are in their beds.’
‘Or in their ditches,’ laughed Nicholas. ‘So, you are a cleverer man than me. You withdraw heedless of pride, knowing that opportunity grows as observation withers.’
‘In answer to your question, the rebels are still beyond our sight. Perhaps they will not come too close. They are untrained, armed only with domestic tools and pieces of wood. How great can their leaders be when they are grown from mud?’
‘This is new talk. You rallied the councilmen not hours ago as if the armies of the French were upon us.’
‘A precaution. We need everyone to be ready for whatever may occur. There is likely to be some trouble even if we are not overrun. The king will call on us for aid. We are to meet him at the Tower.’
‘If you can.’
‘I’ve sent Idonia away, with Robert.’
‘Good. We can go now then. The king expects!’
‘How much?’ breathed Nicholas as he stepped away from the hearth/ into the courtyard.
‘What do you say?’
‘I did not mean to speak. I was wondering only how fit we are to meet the crisis.’ He spoke quickly to cover the error of his aspiration. He could not be heard to doubt the king, but was London to carry the weight of whatever was to fall on it? Was this what was expected? And was expectation reasonable when ignorance prevailed?
William slung him a look that was more familiar from a side angle, when someone else was being scrutinised. Nicholas felt his impatience swell under the boring of William’s eyes and chose to turn towards the yard rather than waste words on argument.
The mayor and once mayor calmed their horses and mounted them in twilight. It was after curfew but they were important men on important business. The rules allowed for this. A tiny memory of the sun lingered around the church towers like failing fire. St Martin-le-Grand had lead the toll for vespers some time since but compline was yet to sound. Nicholas liked the strangeness of the city after dark. The hush was like a mystery. Shouts and laughter broke through from behind locked doors, but out here all was mute and dull. The daytime fight to hold direction, to see the way, to hear even a fraction of what was in one’s own head, was long gone. But the peace came at the price of unease. Half the people who had been in the city during the day were still here somewhere. Maybe most were indoors where they should be, but not all. And those that were not might perpetrate mischief that would be unseen, perhaps unseeable. Nicholas did not like to come out alone at night for fear of what might leap from the darkness to slit his throat or steal his soul.
They followed Thames Street towards the Tower. Nicholas could smell the river, or what had been added to it. For years he had sat in the Guildhall and heard complaints about the refuse of various trades dumped in the Thames against the statutes of the city and of the guilds. Butchers’ offal, plumbers’ lead, rushes and dung. The old king had written many times to the mayor and aldermen demanding that they stop this practice. He seemed confident they had the power to prevent it, although the battle was only ever half won.
No king had more than a shaky hold on the city. The city was his but it was not his: it was the chief city of his realm but he rarely slept within its walls. He lived outside it and exercised his power outside it. His residences were outside the city – all but this one. Exchequer, common pleas, chancery and king’s bench were all beyond Ludgate. Parliament met outside London, in the Painted Chamber of Westminster Hall, or sometimes further still in remote rivals to the capital.