Nicholas Brembre 16

by socalledstories

In October the new regime took over at the Guildhall. John de Northampton became mayor, with John Rote and John Hende as his sheriffs. The common council was elected from the guilds instead of from the wards, which meant that power was spread downwards, away from the leading citizens who dominated the wards, towards the men who lurked in the lesser trades.

London was divided geographically into twenty-four wards, each of which had its alderman, wardmote, watch and so on. But it was also divided into guilds or misteries governing the practice and interests of each craft. While the political shape of each ward was roughly the same, the misteries were quite different from each other, varying in wealth, prestige and composition. The leading crafts were those such as the mercers, fishmongers, grocers and vintners who numbered the great merchants among their members. These men were also prominent in their wards, so that election in the old style made greatest use of their wisdom in choosing the council. But many misteries lacked such leaders and were composed of inferior men only. Since the greater men were concentrated in a few misteries, election by guild allowed power to flow to the lesser misteries, which now had designated places on the council, and among these were many of the supporters of John de Northampton.

This was how it had to be while John of Gaunt soared over Westminster like a bird of prey, his burning eye sweeping the city. Sometimes it was best not to act, not to move at all while the talons of the enemy were still sharp. They would be blunted it time. Nicholas had seen his king on the battlefield and had faith in him to grow strong and true. He knew he would not submit to his uncle for long.

Nicholas attended Guildhall to enrol a new apprentice. The building felt quiet and strange, like a friend who pretended to have forgotten him. While William Walworth had been mayor, and John Warde and John Philipot before him, the Guildhall had been as familiar as his own house. But everything now seemed colder and more crooked, as if a shock of bad weather, wind, rain, ice, had blow in from the north, twisting the corridors and numbing the chambers.

The apprentice followed him at a lag of four paces. Nicholas spoke to the chamberlain, Richard Odyham, about the procedure. The apprentice was still too far away. He did not want to be indentured perhaps. Such had youth become in this age. Richard arranged the enrolment before the mayor and aldermen and the boy was bound to his master.

‘What was that strange look in mayor John’s eye?’ muttered Nicholas as they left the chamber.

Richard said nothing for the length of the corridor. But at the end he turned and spoke: ‘Sometimes care is needed where the ground was firm before.’

‘A warning.’ Nicholas smiled. ‘But it is not needed. Just feet tread safely at all times.’

Richard did not respond to this. The corners of his mouth remained sharp, points on a line that no longer flexed.

A clerk came running through the porch. ‘There is a man named William Benge making a fuss in the courtyard. His sacks are too small.’

‘His sacks are too small?’ reflected Richard. ‘I doubt that it’s the sacks that are the problem. What is supposed to be in them?’

William Benge was there with the alderman of Aldersgate ward, where he had been delivering coal from Hertfordshire. It was obvious that he was not the owner of the goods. He was roughly dressed, with burnt neck and bleached hair, and he shouted in a foul voice. His anger could be understood if his master had sent him to town in ignorance of short measures. But perhaps his protest pitched a little too high to convince.

‘Who is your master?’ asked Nicholas.

The alderman, Adam Bamme, stared unpleasantly at him as if he rather than William were causing the trouble. ‘That I already know: John Bernard of Bishop Hatfield. He will have to come here to recover the coal. And then he can explain why there is not enough of it. Please don’t worry yourself over what is quite simple.’

It was clear that Adam did not want Nicholas Brembre at the Guildhall, even if he had an angry peasant to deal with.

The apprentice stood stock still in the shadow of the porch but his eyes followed the motion of his betters. What would he learn from this exchange of frozen manners? That the city is busy in its attempts to ensure fair trade?

Or that its leaders could barely speak civilly to one another in the sight of St Lawrence?

The church of St Lawrence Jewry looked over the Guildhall from its site close to the old ghetto, from which it had taken its name. There had been no Jews in the city, in England, since their expulsion by Edward I and such time had passed that it was impossible to imagine their presence – in the ghetto, at least. There were often rumours, however, of swarthy looking servants or traders in disguise defying the edict. Many said that the Flemings were not all Flemings and perhaps the revenge exacted on them during the insurrection had been the more frenzied as a result. Nicholas was no great lover of Jews, but it was odd to admit that their place in England, when they had had it still, was similar to that of the merchants today. Both fell outside the ancient order of society; both were prepared to make the loans that were essential to the realm and that others could not match. Nicholas was glad that the competition had gone. In the meantime St Lawrence held onto the memory.

Of all the martyrs, St Lawrence was the one who impressed the most. Nicholas shuddered each time he remembered the fate of the saint. He had seen a fresco on pilgrimage to Rome which left him racked with spasms. The martyr lies smiling while sweating blood on a bed of white hot metal striped with fire. To face a rain of arrows, to accept tether to a wheel, to offer throat to knife or neck to sword – these things are worthy in the eye of God. But to lie down on a gridiron and cook yourself for Him – does that not go beyond the power of mortal flesh? Idonia did not agree. For her this was the very point of sainthood, that it exceeded expectation. But Nicholas wanted to keep what was human in human shape until it became immortal. Idonia wanted to take leave of the earth as soon as her imagination could fix on a vehicle.

Nicholas sent the servants home with the apprentice. He wanted to walk alone and would not be bound by fear of thieves or assassins. In Trump Street Nicholas hesitated because of a glint of gold. There in the doorway, as you would wish, was a trumpet, newly polished and hung to catch the sun. The shop belonged to the family of Godefrey the Trompour, recently dead. His wife was in the shop busy with whatever could be done. The bell of the trumpet swelled into Nichol’s imagination. He heard its sweet stab across the city, its martial intent – to gather the watch and sound the alarm – failing to darken its timbre. It was a voice he had heard many times, often disappearing into whatever task he was pursuing on the ground. But there were other times when he followed the golden stream up to its final destination. Such ecstasy of sound can rest only with God.

There was no point in waiting. These instruments were not made for private citizens to purchase. But he wanted one. He wanted to learn to make that golden sound, raising the bell to the heavens and blowing his soul into it.

The widow smiled at him, though the smile was false: ‘Trumpets for the watch?’ she asked. This was the least unlikely explanation for this strange presence in her shop, but she remained confused. Rich merchants did not order instruments for common lips to touch.

The shine on the trumpet slowly dulled and Nicholas took his eyes to the widow. ‘God’s peace to you, madame. Something for your husband’s soul,’ and he placed a coin on the bench.

He walked on down to Chepe to inspect the markets. It was bright and sharp as only winter days can be and his body felt cleansed inside to the heart. Even the poultry stalls smelt tolerable in the cold, and the slant of the sun was broad on the face of the tenements to the north-side of the road. People were clothed as thickly as they could afford but their movements were still fine and they weaved in and out of each other with clumsy grace.

Suddenly amongst the masses a child sneezed. Nicholas stopped still as time churned the ground beneath him. He looked for the child but saw instead familiar faces on dead bodies. The sound of the sneeze retched back to the plague. He felt the glands under his jaw and glanced towards others for signs of buboes. All around were people poorly dressed and worse fed, with black rings around their eyes and snotty noses. Disease would slip into them with gleeful ease and rest in their chests until it was time to fall down. His mother was dragged in from the yard. His father did not want her to die among the crates. He laid her in the hall beside the fire but the servants would not tend her so he did it himself. Nichol hid behind the screen. He could not understand. His mother sometimes slept in the afternoon but never in the yard. And why had his father not put her in the bedchamber? Of course he had heard of death. Though people hushed when they saw that he was listening, too many the words had already passed their lips. So he knew that people were dying. But he did not know what that meant.

Nicholas Brembre stood trembling in the centre of Chepe as he gathered back the years of his life. Eventually he found that he was a merchant again, that he was a man of stature, healthy, married, rich. But he did not want to go home. Instead he went in search of his brother-in-law Henry Vanner to a talk a little business. There was nothing in this world that did not have its cure, or at the very least its shuffle to distraction. Where better to seek escape than with a vintner, whose shuffle was between London and Gascony and whose thoughts were forever curdled by warm red juice.

The vintner’s house backed onto the Thames. Nicholas was envious of his ease of access from wharf to cellar. The hall behind the business chamber was particularly large and stuffed with cushions. Nicholas found their colours too much for his taste. He could name the many exotic places whence the dyes and the materials had come, indeed he had to restrain himself from applying too great attention to them and thereby validating their excess. Were these cushions the result of a woman’s need for comfort, or a man’s for showing his wealth?

Henry Vanner had a puffy face and hair like a sheep. It was the hair of a sheep that had recently been shorn, but it was woolly nonetheless. The puffiness had been with him since his youth. Nicholas had known him a long time, although the early years were in passing only, seen from a distance. He did not know him in any substantial sense until they married their share of the Stodeye sisters. Margery was pink and laughing when she first met Henry. Would any man have pleased her then? Nicholas tried to see through a girl’s eye to whatever attraction Henry might have, or have had then. But the sheep’s head blinked and banished chance of love.

Through his daughters John Stodeye had pulled trade and politics into a fabulous knot. When Henry Vanner married Margery he was tied not just to her but to John and to Nicholas. When Margaret was married to John Birlingham and then, better still, to John Philipot, yet more strands were twisted in her swing from death to life. Joan was young when her father died, but her brothers-in-law were there to make another splice to the weave. This was the one of which Nicholas wanted to speak, as he was aware of some shredding.

Two years since Joan had been married to Thomas Goodlake, a prospect well known to Nicholas and to the others. She was to give birth in a month and had been ill for half a year. Thomas was a good man who was too easily distracted by the threat to wife and child. But there was nothing to be done about such things and in the meantime business suffered.

‘I don’t know, Nicholas,’ said Henry shaking the wool around his ears. ‘You understand something of infants. It certainly seems a frightening business to me. But if you’re worried about your joint ventures, why don’t you take them over until the child arrives?’

‘It is not just about the ventures he has with me. The whole of Thomas’ business affects the family.’

‘And the whole of my business?’ asked Henry after a pause.

‘Of course. We are a group recognised throughout London – and in many cities round the world – for our wealth and our efficiency. If the shine dims in one place the rest will dull in time, since appearance is both vital and insubstantial, everything and nothing at all.’

‘What should we do?’

‘We must remind Thomas of his obligations. He would have no wife at all if it were not for our favour, nor, more to the point, the business opportunities attached to her. His eye is on a piece of the puzzle rather than the whole. You and I can spread his sight.’

Henry seemed to have taken the point. Nicholas checked that what was in the nod of his head was also in his eyes. Then he moved on:

‘I’m thinking of putting some of my affairs in trust.’

‘Are you ill, Nicholas, by God?’

‘I am worried about the men who now run the city.’

‘What might they do? There is only a short time to wait before we throw them out again. John says…’

‘I know John says there is nothing to concern us. But John does not always say what he means.’

‘I have always thought that he did. I have always thought he was the only man in the city who did.’

‘What are you saying of the rest of us?’

Henry’s face clenched in alarm until Nicholas’s shaped a smile.

In the evening Nicholas led prayers in the solar. Agnes rushed in after he had begun. He ignored the flush of her face and her breath’s disarray. Sin must not dislodge the purpose of the devotion. He prayed for the household and for the king. For the city of London and her officers. For the guild of grocers and for St Antonin. He prayed to St Clement for a calm sea and for himself and the apprentices, who would soon be on it. ‘God keep us all.’

The household, first to be named to our Lord, began to cast away. But it creaked to a halt on seeing that one of its number was becalmed. Idonia remained in prayer. Nicholas turned to look at her and reached for her hand. The company arose and was waved from the chamber.

‘Why do you keep them from rising?’

‘I need to pray for those you do not name.’

‘Should I name every Christian under the sky?’

‘I need to pray for my sisters and their children, especially for Joan.’

‘I prayed for Joan yesterday.’

‘Yes, but then you went to Henry to say that nothing could be done for her.’

‘That is true, is it not, depending on how you listen to it?’

‘You mean that those that suffer should do so without comfort and with little hope, so that nobody else is troubled?’

‘Whatever happens is God’s choice. We don’t understand it and we have no power over it.’

‘Then why pray, Nicholas?’

Nicholas felt sudden cold in his blood. He straightened his back and stood as if to leave, but then turned back to Idonia and hissed at her through blue lips: ‘You want me to speak for God? You want me to tell you things that have defeated men for hundreds of years? Constantine prayed to God without worrying why, and so did Arthur. They were far greater than I – and blessed with wives who did not constantly ask questions beyond the understanding of the saints.’

Idonia sat on the bench with her hands resting together like a sling and moved nothing but her eyes. Her eyes had slid away from her husband and now they pressed the corners of the room. A wife should be quiet, but was that enough?