Nicholas Brembre 9
Nicholas took the way back through Bishopsgate with William, Henry and John. They avoided the Tower, guessing it would remain the centre of the drama. They could see the population of their gamble seething to the south, thrust even into private passageways, while violation was less evident in Bishopsgate ward. They stayed close together with swords loose. A group of youths alarmed them for a moment, and whores grinned at them from alleyways, but the rebels were elsewhere.
As they passed the double front of St Helens, John looked up and fluttered his lips in silent prayer. Nicholas thought of Idonia, who had been out of his mind for at least a day. Now she and her sister, John’s wife, pressed up against him, demanding that he take long breaths. They wanted to cling to him. Their eyes were filled with flames, which their tears sought to quench. Margaret broke away to go to John, but John walked on past the vision and pressed his lips into a line.
What about Robert? Was he any help to his mother, or was he scratching in a corner with that foggy look on his face? Too young to fight, too old to be waging wars between stones.
They gained Guildhall, where many of the citizens had gathered. William fielded their views – despairing, angry and apparently disputatious. But in truth there was little to say or to do. The watches were out, but those with sense could see that they were pointless. They might divert a group of looters for a moment, but they could not guard every shop and dwelling through the night and there was a risk that a mob would congeal and smother them completely.
They had begun to see, in any case, that the violence was discriminant. It did not proceed entirely regardless of merit. The rebels passed across much of the regular shape of the city, but they picked out certain corners where they believed their foes to lurk. Prisons were emptied, the Temple and other lawyers’ houses were attacked and legal papers set aflame. The preceptory of the hospitallers at Clerkenwell had been invaded, as had the palace of John of Gaunt at Westminster. All associated with the law, with Lancaster or with Hales attracted the rebels’ ire. But the honest guildsmen and officers of the city were not their first concern – albeit unwise to rely on consistency in this matter.
Nicholas did not want to remain at Guildhall. He covered his face and walked alone back to La Riole. The city was in turmoil, and yet he felt calm. Why would a man who had been mayor of London, whose wealth had exploded in that great marketplace, whose children had been born and mostly died there, feel so calm on the point of its destruction? Flames like laughter were bursting out of the faces of the buildings. The joke skipped from street to street, amusing some while others escaped understanding. They will get the message soon, thought Nicholas. What of me? Will I be consumed by the hysteria? Will the greater part of my striving be sucked away in this fiery draft of hell?
He found that he was laughing himself. It was funny that men with crowns and mitres, fancy clothes and jewels in their purses had nothing of value in their heads, that they made great speed in no particular direction uttering words that had no chance of making sense. This thing was out of their hands. God had shaken the world and was waiting to see where the pieces would fall.
The sky was bright to the west with echoes of light elsewhere. He felt safer away from the Tower, however high its walls might be. He imagined the king, the boy in ermine, looking out across London from a turret, cursing his inheritance perhaps. Might he believe that all his realm would be burnt by morning and that he would be left with the blame?
At the corner of Watling Street and Cordwainer, Nicholas waited behind a barrel while twenty or more men ran past with torches. Smoke and sparks streamed behind them like bad children. The bright noise faded to the west, passing St Paul’s. There was an unhealthy glow further down the thoroughfare. He felt as if the floor of the city were shivering to the rhythm of distant boots. Then Nicholas Brembre, who was used to crossing this road at his leisure on a horse and with servants, scuttled towards the safety La Riole.
Nicholas could not open his door. He stood back for a moment savouring his rejection. Then he called out: ‘Nicholas Brembre is at his gate and demands entry! Peter! Jankin! Gombert!’
More silence, followed by scuffling, some bangs and scrapes and then the sound of hell being wrenched apart. The door grew light around its edges and swung inward to reveal Gombert clutching a torch. A collection of planks were piled to his side, nails sticking out like teeth.
‘I was waiting for you, master,’ said Gombert.
‘All on your own?’ asked Nicholas. The outside curve of a body remained in view, although the rest was hidden more successfully behind the planks.
‘She was scared. All of us are scared. I comforted her.’
‘Very noble. But it hasn’t worked: she’s still scared, or she wouldn’t be hiding. It’s me, Agnes. I’m not a rebel come to murder you in your bed. Gombert, how long have you been out here doing whatever you were doing?’
‘I am impressed. Go into the house and get everyone out here with whatever they can find that might split a peasant’s head.’
He watched while Gombert tripped his way back across the yard. Then he turned to the pile of planks. ‘Come out Agnes. I want to talk to you.’
Agnes was a recent addition to the household, chosen by Idonia but not approved by her husband. There was something animal about her, which first repelled and then attracted. ‘Gombert is not the cleverest man in the world. I fear you may be dallying with him.’
Agnes said nothing. There is no way of catching time so as to compare one face with its successor. Still, Nicholas was teased by the idea that, within a few breaths, hers had changed completely, though it had hardly changed at all.
‘I don’t want to hear that Gombert has been sniffling into his pottage or swooning in the workshop because you are playing with him.’
‘I will try to make better use of my time, sir.’
The young woman stood in the midst of a city aflame, waiting to be dismissed from her master’s understanding. How old was she? Where did she come from? Was she pure? Probably not. If he touched her would she squirm and run away? Or would she be sure of herself? Her tunic of sack hung like silk. There was something about her skin that lit her whole person, even though, as would be hoped, only her hands and her face were exposed. Where is Jankin? Why does he not have the defences arranged?
Jankin was sitting on a straw bale in the dairy. He was still as a winter’s day. Nicholas could feel breath freeze on his lip and hear crows cackle over dead meat on the snow.
‘What did you see, Jankin?’
Jankin moved. His hand jumped to his throat. His eyes clamped and then yielded again to whatever it was that hovered between Nicholas and them. ‘I saw the Flemings. I heard children crying. They pulled them out of St Martin’s Vintry and they killed them in the street. All the Flemings. I didn’t want to see but it happened again and again. They cut off their heads but sometimes they just cut their throats. One woman tried to get away with a child. They slashed at her and the child. Their guts were spilled together on the street. God have mercy on their souls that finally departed, but not quickly enough.’
‘Did you hear anything of Richard Lyons?’
‘God cast the rebels into hell.’
‘They were calling his name.’
‘Calling because they were seeking him or because they had him?’
‘They were shrieking like devils. No-one could escape.’
‘None minded me. I was born here. My mother was maid to a knife-grinder. How was I to know? They have no grief with me.’
‘Listen to me, Jankin. The night is full of woe. You have seen part of it. You need to guard against the rest. Go out into the yard and help assemble our defences.’
The servants were out in the yard now, but they were not preparing the defences. Instead they were in a circle speaking together.
‘In the name of Jesus!’ Nicholas screamed. ‘What is going on?’
The ring broke between Peter and Guy, but the gap did not destroy the dissidence.
‘We are praying,’ said the voice of Agnes from within.
‘Looks more like witchcraft to me.’
‘Pardon, sir, if that is how it seems. But it is Jesus our Lord we call to, because we need His protection.’
‘Is it you who has devised this game of holding hands? It is pretty, but it does not serve the purpose you claim. You men can pray to Jesus while you are putting on your swords and your jackets. Agnes and Pieryne can be piling up missiles and filling buckets. This should have been done days ago.’