Nicholas Brembre 14
Agnes swirled down the stairs from the bedroom to tell him that Idonia was sick again. Nicholas had no task in this as the physician had already been called. His foot rested on the bottom step while Agnes swirled again in the space left to her. He did not follow her up but withdrew to the hall where the dull light confirmed his mood. What was wrong with her? She had born children before without this effect. The baby was certainly very sick and died within a week. God keep poor Clarry. But the weakness of her tiny body had no bearing on her mother’s.
Nicholas sat at his table in the hall surrounded by tapestries of Arthur’s adventures. While the grocer scratched away at his accounts, the king slew Norsemen and dragons, avenged his father, wed Guinevere, captured France, slew Mordred and died himself, perhaps.
Nicholas looked at the crimson thread that ran through the battle against the Romans in the Soissons valley. The colour for that dye came from insect eggs laid by the Mediterranean sea. He had sailed in those waters a number of times but always returned to this room. At this hour the egg red colour was muted by shadow, but in the summer, at prime, the sun’s fingers stroked it to ecstasy. That was where he wanted to travel: into the picture of the battle; and not in a boat full of wool.
Nicholas turned back to his accounts. The blood here ran black, and thinly at that. Tiny waves lapped across the page – feeble pulses marking the filling of the nib but barely amounting to evidence of life. He caught the edges of the roll with his fingertips but his eyes would not hold the line. By the passage was the tapestry that Idonia had sewn of Arthur and Guinevere in a garden. It was well done, indeed there was something about it that put it ahead of the others, though the subject matter was less engaging. She had spent time on the detail, on the light and shade, the pattern of the cloth, the colours of the petals. It was pleasing that his wife could do this. Arthur was young in the tapestry. The lines across his face were no more than were necessary for his expression of hope.
Nicholas was now a knight, but if so this was merely a detail of the king’s largesse. The title beat nicely with the rest of his name. Sir Nicholas Brembre. He saw his lips bouncing it as he checked himself in the burnished metal mirror that hung above the table. But in the background was the blur of the Soissons and he knew without looking the rage of the horses and the effort of their riders to stay aboard, to thrust their lances and swing their swords. These were knights.
The physic, when he came, was tiny and bright. His skin was painfully shiny. Happily there was less of it than would be needed on a larger person. There was a stain on his cloak that had resisted vigorous attempts to remove it, judging by the terrifying cleanliness of the remainder. Nicholas did not like the look of him but would judge him by his cure.
Black bile was the initial verdict. Excess of black bile – probably linked to having sex under the influence of Jupiter. Nicholas could have made this up himself. Jupiter was usually somewhere about causing trouble of one variety or another. He did not need to pay anybody to blame that sorry god. As for sex, if that was the trigger, Idonia should be the healthiest woman in the street.
‘Will she live?’ asked Nicholas.
‘What was the name of your man who came to fetch me from St Bartholomew’s?’
Nicholas looked across at Felice, who was smoothing the bed clothes in a pointless gesture. ‘Peter,’ she said very quietly.
‘I believe it was Peter,’ repeated Nicholas, since it was he who had been asked and since he doubted the physic’s power to hear what was so close to silence. He doubted several other powers of the physic, for that matter.
The physic was counting on his fingers. Then he stood looking at the ceiling with his digits still erect. The little figure was tense with the calculation.
‘She’ll live,’ he said at last.
Nicholas did not trust these games with letters and numbers: adding, subtracting, playing with people’s names to calculate the outcome of disease. This so-called doctor could likely not spell Idonia correctly, and still less Peter, which had an odd end to it. His own name was often spelled in different ways: Bramber, for example – even in the records at Guildhall. What if the length of his life depended on whether there were more ‘e’s or ‘a’s in the head of the physician who was attending him. They all had their ideas about these things. This business of counting the letters in the name of the man sent to fetch the practitioner was apparently in fashion at St Bartholomew’s. As far as Nicholas was concerned it was the daftest yet.
‘Nicholas,’ sighed Idonia.
She wanted to go to church and he promised he would take her when she was well enough, although they argued about how soon this state was achieved.
‘Give me your blessing,’ she said, ‘and allow my illness to depart. You want to hold on to it.’
‘Why would I do that?’
‘Because it is easy to be angry at something without importance.’
St Antonin’s church stood on Watling Street where it was met by Soper Lane. It was the church of the grocers’ guild. Idonia’s favourite church was in the opposite direction but at a greater distance. Nicholas walked slowly down to St Antonin’s with Idonia on his arm and the servants and apprentices behind them.
The saint was martyred in the land of the infidel where he built a church on the site of a Muslim monument and otherwise sought to replace false religion with true. He was torn apart by unbelievers, but such was the desire of the martyrs for the church in the early days. By their dramatic deaths, saints like Antonin built the Christian faith, as well as securing their places in heaven and in our hearts. Idonia approved of Antonin and his desperate efforts in the desert, as she approved of all the martyrs, although she often asked why the grocers had chosen this one in particular, and Nicholas was not sure himself. Sometimes, when he sat in the churchyard as the days shrank and the ground grew hard with frost, Nicholas imagined sand under his toes and sunlight like burning rain. How did St Antonin find himself in this damp city on the marshes? Perhaps he followed the spices. Yes, that was why the grocers claimed him. It was along the spice trail from Syria that the head of the saint was brought to Palencia Cathedral, and great honour was done to the relic there. And perhaps it was merchants again who brought his story to England as they shadowed the return of pilgrims from Santiago de Compostela. Nicholas would like to make that pilgrimage himself one day, to be the substance rather than the shade.
Idonia was praying. When Idonia prayed her body seemed to collapse inside her clothing as if she had died and turned to dust. Was this her way of being with God? Did she want to be dead while she was still alive? It is God’s choice when we die and it will be soon enough. No reason to hasten a passage which may be more painful than we hope and possibly in the wrong direction.
Mass was progressing unsteadily. The rector was twitching at twice his usual rate. He dropped the beautiful pewter chalice and smacked one of the attendants when he failed to run after it. He executed a turn so rapid that his robes spun up to his knees and caught in a candle holder on the pillar by the alter. For a moment the little bulbs of light flew in all directions. Nicholas was pricked by a nostalgia of fire flies in a country night.
Nicholas sat in the front pew with Idonia, the apprentices and the servants. He was mildly annoyed by the nonsense, while they seemed distressed. Idonia turned her head to his, but he did not respond. One of the apprentices sat up violently, almost bouncing on the bench. The servants shuffled and muttered in their favourite monosyllables. None of them knew Latin and, as they rarely attended mass, it was likely that they suffered the experience as a mysterious duty of endurance rather than understanding. By the end most of them looked relieved to be released from their stillness.
Afterwards, while Idonia sank into yet more prayer, the rector took Nicholas out into the yard. They stepped around the edges of carved stones laid in God’s mud by men with no names. The earth was still dark in sorrow at its reception of John Aubrey, late member of the guild. Nicholas paused for a moment but the rector pushed on.
‘Rats the size of dogs,’ he repeated, dropping his robes now that the fresh earth was passed. ‘Yesterday I saw them run behind this chapel. On the feast of St Mary Magdalene there was a trail of rubbish into the trees. I don’t know what to do. They will gather strength and then they will attack. How can we withstand such monsters?’
With faith? wondered Nicholas. Perhaps that point was too obvious to mention. Perhaps not. His instinct was, however, that much might be achieved on the ground before God need be troubled. Could it be true that huge rats had begun to breed in a London churchyard? There are always new possibilities, but experience suggests the familiar usual trumps the bizarre.
Nicholas crept down the side of the chapel as required, looking for signs of large rodents or their detritus. Rubble had been stacked here, along with kitchen waste and, it appeared, human ordure. Rats would enjoy such an environment, but none, big or small, were showing themselves now. Nicholas looked up to the windows of the chapel. By a strange chance – or perhaps God was making a point – this was the chapel built by John Aubrey’s father Andrew, where priests had been praying for the latter’s soul for thirty years. He hoped they were helping him, that his time in purgatory was reducing in accordance with the funds he had devoted to the project. And that his son, whom Nicholas had known well, would gain some benefit from the overflow of his father’s bounty.
Nicholas had counted at least ten chantry priests who celebrated mass in the chapels of St Antonin. Men must be priests; priests must eat; some coin is not claimed by immediate earthly need; all souls are in mortal terror. Everything made sense – if you started with the priests.
The rector was disappointed by the lack of entertainment.
‘Rats are difficult to catch if you go after them,’ said Nicholas. ‘Better to watch from a distance.’ He promised to do so himself.
Idonia had finished praying for the moment. She walked home with her husband and the apprentices and servants marched behind.