Nicholas Brembre 18
Agnes was cleaning the silver. Her hand moved in circles on the precious surface, raising a liquid sheen. Nicholas watched her and she carried on as if she did not know he was there. After a while he lifted a piece that she had shone to the clearness of a pool. He could see his face in it. His face was full of black points.
‘That silver is worth shining,’ he said. ‘It came from Kutná Hora, where it is as hot as Egypt all summer and cold as death for the rest of the year. In the mines the temperature is always the same. They say there is a slight chill, which aids the work. Of course I have never been to Bohemia. That piece I bought in Venice when I was young. It was the first thing other than a woman to hold my gaze. You can see the work is by a master. The lines are so delicate, and yet he conjures a blast of life from them.’
Agnes lifted her eyes to look for another piece of silver.
She is so full of purpose her whole body sings, and yet she pretends this quiet indifference, this satisfaction in servitude, as if she had no ambition. A man felt blocked and yet encouraged at the same time. There is something in her poise that holds the room, with her exquisite shoulders like the arch of a huge bass instrument that throbs through the earth.
‘Ahh!’ Pieryne took a step into the room. Though her face was pink with looking for him she was still ugly. It was God’s trial of women that some should be beauties and others not. Those without looks were less tempted by the devil but what point was there to their lives? What could you do as an ugly woman? Hide your sex behind your apron and get on with your work.
‘My lady asks if you are free?’
‘Yes, Pieryne. I am free. Is she in the hall?’
‘She was in the hall but she has gone to the solar.’
‘I suppose I am bound to see what she wants.’
Idonia was by the window wasting her concentration on the mist. Whatever she was thinking she was not ready to try it on him. Robert was in the middle of the room attempting to balance on one foot until sight of his father ended this foolery. Nicholas wanted to ask why he was needed so urgently but on reflection he decided to sit down and wait.
Robert’s hair stuck up along his fringe. His mother despaired of it and was forever ordering one servant or another to dampen it down. Nicholas shuddered when they did so. The cold, wet touch on the brow was both an echo and a premonition. Better no contact. No touch is light, there is always pressure. Robert was mainly compliant. He had learned the immediate lesson that less hurt resulted thereby. But he seemed also to understand that there are other levels of pain. Sometimes he snatched his head from the grasp of the straightener and Nicholas was proud of him for once, though he ordered him to go back.
Power ran through the veins of the nation – forget love or fellowship or even money. But it was a foxy thing. Why did Robert return to have his hair smothered? Why did the servants try to achieve the impossible wish of his mother? It was true that they could be dismissed or Robert beaten, but why was that? Why was he, Nicholas Brembre, allowed to destitute these people or rain violence on his son?
When he was a child people terrified him. As he grew they shrank and became less alarming. He decided he must grow bigger than anyone in the world. His father threw up his hands and sucked in all the smelly air of London.
‘Oh! Nichol! Do not open your mouth when the devil is between your teeth!’
Nicholas felt nothing unusual in his mouth but he bit down hard so as not to waste the opportunity. His father was drooling on about duty and humility, the vast gap between man and God, the evils of pride and envy, and how Nichol must know his place if he was to be saved from the fires of hell.
‘Is mother in hell?’
‘Of course she is not in hell. Have you been worrying about your mother, Nichol?’
Nichol had not been worried about his mother, or not until then. But now he was confused by memories of her sitting with her friends, striking down one opinion after another and telling him afterwards how stupid other people are. When she was dying of the plague, he crouched outside the doorway and heard her regrets at what she had missed in her life. She wanted more wine, finer food, the company of intelligent men; she wanted to walk the hills around London without an escort and she wanted to see foreign lands.
His father turned away to attend to a blemish on the wall. Nichol was fairly confident now that there was no devil in his mouth but he kept it shut nonetheless.
‘Robert is out of his infant dress.’
So he was. That was the difference!
‘He’s been out of it for several days,’ added Idonia, turning her back on the mist. Robert looked cautiously pleased. He tried smiling at his father.
‘Well, Robert, I hope you wear your new clothes well. No more playing in the dirt. We need to find a school for you.’
That was what she wanted to talk about! Only one of the other children had been to school. Hugh had made a promising start, but Robert was not of the same matter as Hugh. Would he sit in the right place long enough to learn, or to escape a whipping?
‘Should he go to St Anthony’s?’ Nicholas asked. He was surprised by a lack of response from Idonia. It was as if she had not herself considered the topic on which she demanded his attention.
‘Hugh liked it there,’ she conceded eventually.
‘I will like it there,’ said Robert.
‘Liking has little to do with it. Listen to me, Robert, if I pay for you to go to school you will work too hard to enjoy it, but you will become a man of knowledge and that will be worth the pain. If you don’t make use of what you are given, you will miss the things that can make your life rich. You will be like a peasant in a field, who sees only mud and sky and nothing in between.’
Robert looked at his mother in that way he had of seeking a different world in her face, but Idonia offered nothing today.
Why did Idonia expect her own way? It was a strange thing. Was it because she was born to great wealth, while he had joined her in it like an ant attaching to a queen? He had added to that wealth thereafter but he could never attain that same confidence, that rock-sureness that claimed without fear. He had always strived for his money, one way or another and worried over it as a result. It was enough to bring him status in the world but not enough to delude him that he could not fall.
In the meantime there was plenty of it. Wealth had a way of generating more wealth. Long trails of credit eventually turned from theory into things. Last year’s groceries turned into this year’s sheep: new animals growing new wool, and ships that could transport it sucking in new groceries to fill the space on return. When business did well and credit was converted, there was little else to do than buy property. He had many properties in London and beyond but he kept adding to them since without this exit into earth and stone the credit never stopped revolving. The solution, however, was less than it claimed. Once the rents came in there was new need to invest and the problem resumed. But as the problem was not a real problem, the solution need trouble itself less at its failure. What he wanted to ensure was that whatever he had would pass to the right people should his enemies attack.
Nicholas sat on his hands to warm them. This side of the chamber was directly below the windows, which were half-glazed. Despite the chill he favoured this position because the blast of air was accompanied by a blast of light. It was March and the sun had gained a decent height against the heavens. This spring had brought him back into city politics as alderman for Bread Street and he wanted to be able to see what was going on.
The meeting progressed through time, if not in any other way. Nicholas could feel the circle of his eyes in their sockets. He wanted to sooth them by closing the lids. The slight lazy pain would cease in the enclosing. Outside the Guildhall the wind was blowing in the branches and along the street. He could hear its complaint. But inside there was no kindred movement to blow the mouldy words away. John de Northampton was still savaging the fishmongers, pulling at their scales one by one. Walter Sybil, fishmonger, was bouncing on the end of Nichol’s bench, his flabby form emitting heat but no sound. Nichol’s head squirmed with his unspoken words: ‘That manis an abomination! Impossible to understand!’
The benches were polished by the many, well-fed buttocks of the aldermen. The colour was rich and sunlight skimmed off the ends and shimmered in the spaces where aldermanic absence allowed. Oak was everywhere but Nicholas had no complaint to make of that. He enjoyed the solidity of the wood as it contrasted with the ethereal nature of its surface. The sawyers who cut the planks knew their strength; the carpenters who shaped the wood knew its usefulness; the polishers who smoothed its surface knew the beauty of its grain and the men who sat on it knew the final feel of the acorn’s fruit.
When Nicholas was a small boy in Norfolk he learned to recognise the leaves of the great trees – his mother taught him – and the shape of the oak leaf delighted him most. Now he had forgotten the others but the many waisted shape had caught in his soul.
John Walcote beside him shifted weight from one buttock to the other. There was always something pitched about him. A draper who exported wool, he took a wandering path among the parties, sometimes in agreement with the grocers and fishmongers, sometimes with scratchy side groups, often with the enemy John and his cronies. At the moment, although Nicholas was not sure why, he showed his solidarity with the victuallers, thrusting his face at him for confirmation of the truth. Nicholas stopped thinking about the wood and shifted to the figures it supported. The urge to speak, which had been icily submerged in him until then, bobbed up a little. He didn’t want it to reach the surface. He had allowed his mind to drift away from his guts for good reason: so that he could keep to William Walworth’s strategy of silence. Up came the urge a little further. Nicholas held his mouth clenched but his tongue pushed out against his teeth.
John de Northampton sat sideways in his chair. It was his chair now but the sun keeps crossing the sky and soon, praise God, it will shine on a new mayor. That chair which he abused by the arrogance of his slant, was once the support of William Walworth, John Philipot and of Nicholas Brembre. It was a simple piece with no carvings and no arms but a high back with a clover cut from it at its broadest point. Nicholas ached to feel its hard, cold shape again, but instead turned to the discomfort of the debate.
The subject was still fish. Fish had been the subject of many a row in the chamber over the years. John wanted to overturn the progress that had been made in regulating city trade. He wanted to throw open the market in fish to all comers – to the commonality, to foreigners, perhaps to aliens even. Why did he think the misteries had been so careful about who sold where? Because that’s what worked best. Freemen, full members of the guild, could sell from their shops, commoners from the market place, foreigners entering from beyond the city must sell only between stated times. The system promoted order and therefore profit. Each knew where he should be and what he must do.
The urge to speak was at the surface now, pushing his lips apart: ‘These moves are meanly meant. They aim at the ruination of the fishmongers, who have served our city faithfully.’
‘Which fishmongers?’ laughed John. ‘Those that have kept the trade to themselves and become rich at the expense of ordinary folk who must pay unholy prices?’
‘Thus you seek to win over the stomachs of the common people. But is your popularity worth the damage you do to the heart of London by bleeding those who keep the body going?’
‘Sir Nicholas I compliment you on your alliance to such a saintly party. Now sit down and let the rest of us wrestle with our grubby understanding of the matter.’
John’s calm appeared without ruffle until the end of the meeting, at which point he raced Nicholas to the door and blocked his way.
‘Sir, you are not mayor now. Perhaps you will be in the future. Please wait your turn.’
‘I am a citizen of London and try to act within my rights in all I do. Tell me how I trespass? Is it that I have opinions that are not yours? Must I agree with you because you are mayor?’
‘I see we both believe the other claims a monopoly on the truth. So far we are equal. But, then, I am still mayor and am not required to restrain my tongue until September comes again.’
‘This is tyranny. Must all others remain silent because the mayor speaks? Must only one man have a voice between elections?’
‘I don’t prevent you from discussing the state of your household with your wife, or the state of your marriage with your priest. You can shout as much as you like about the holes in your ships, or the rot in your sheep. Bore people as you will on these subjects. But don’t fill Guildhall with your verminous commentary on my time as mayor.’
The layers of ice that Nicholas had packed into his chest melted all at once in a flood of violent intent. His arms flailed but he did not take the steps forward that would have allowed for actual assault. John signalled for his men to hold their places, then waved them away and followed them slowly from the hall.
William Walworth gripped his arm and pulled him away. Real pain replaced that which had threatened and he shook off his antagonist, confused as to who it might be. Nicholas was not used to chastisement: what he shared with all children had been left to masses when he became a man. He felt as if he had dropped into a lesser world, a place of misrule, such as occurred on Twelfth Night when the common people are allowed to relieve themselves of their fantasies. Men should take care that they did not mistake Sir Nicholas Brembre for a posturing peasant, a mock lord. He would not accept punishment from his inferiors, nor readily from his peers, and society, in the main, was constructed so that such relations could be easily read. That which pertained between father and son was reproduced throughout the realm so that it was known who could inflict violence – real or otherwise – and who must submit. No-one in the Guildhall could be father to Nicholas Brembre; only the great lords qualified, and perhaps not all of them given the childish state of some. A slender image lit up in his mind. Perhaps only the king could be his father.
Now beyond Guildhall and turning into Chepe, Nicholas felt the city rally around him. He was right about the lords. He looked to the east where the tips of the four towers blinked between the roof tops. He recalled his summons there by Thomas of Woodstock after the Cornhill riot of five years ago. The earl’s servants had been attacked and his hostel invaded and he blamed the mayor for not keeping order in the city. Nicholas Brembre was that mayor and he reported to the White Tower where the king’s youngest uncle sat in an armed chair with half his face hid in a hairy hand. Dragons breathed fire from the legs of the chair, while harts squeezed themselves between the flames. Nicholas waited for the face to reveal itself but not with hope of inspiration. The earl shouted a fair amount and sometimes left his seat to stamp around, but amidst the bluster his expression remained obscure. Why was that? Nicholas could see the face – at least sometimes when it appeared between the flailing arms – but he could make nothing of it. In the end Nicholas concluded that the expression was simply silly. The silliness continued into the Gloucester Parliament where Thomas, mighty earl of Buckingham, charged Nicholas, lowly mayor of London, with slothfulness and Nicholas paid a hundred marks in redress, despite having refuted the charge. But Nicholas lost no real dignity through this. He did it for the city, to protect it from the attack on its liberties that would to follow a defeat for the earl. The city exonerated him in a special meeting at the Guildhall and it was entered in the record that he had acted in its interest and should be repaid from the pockets of the malefactors.
He was home now and the gate was flung wide for his party. He stamped his feet on the hard ground of the courtyard until he could feel them again and then followed the servants inside.