William Walworth was a man of wit who understood the world through what he had seen of it. Though this approach did well, it fell short of the best, since it missed the little turns and switches in events and the knack of other players in hiding their purpose. Where William saw the worthiness of fishmongers, Nicholas saw the opportunity for sleight of hand. William was more practical than John Philipot, but the clever stuff still fell below his sight. Each had his role. There was little gain in forcing their eyes to see what he could dispatch with half the effort. But sometimes their innocence angered him and he sought a fellow clear-sighted enough to understand the mission. For this he looked to Thomas Wailand, draper, of Coleman Street, whom he had met, curiously enough, through John Frosshe. He was a stooping man who kept three mistresses in Southwark, women who had taken this one step up from their former employment. When not south of the river, Thomas could be found in one or other of his warehouses stroking the silk or the linen, or wandering between the windows of his rivals attempting to sniff out their secrets.
Today he was at home as expected and Nicholas sat and ate a good dinner with him, which had been ordered from his favourite pastry cook in Bread Street. Nicholas wondered what Thomas knew about the easy entry of the rebels into the city but he asked a slightly different question: ‘What do you think of the claims against the men in the tower? Could they be guilty?’
‘I don’t know, Sir Nicholas. It’s a nice little puzzle. Men with their paws on the latch, who are completely innocent at the same time.’
Nicholas was caught by the barbed reply. ‘I make no suggestion either way.’
‘You never have an opinion, do you, Sir Nicholas?’
This was so unlikely an observation Nicholas could make nothing of it, but he went along with its presumption all the same: ‘Opinions flap around and get caught in each other. I want something cold and hard I could break my fist on. I was there at the bridge that day. There were men among the rebels who had not arrived with them and had no business there. They were certainly not common men. They were hiding under their hoods. But I can tell you they were not the prisoners in the tower because I could see those men whenever I looked over my shoulder.’
‘But you were not there after nightfall I imagine, Sir Nicholas. So you are unlikely to produce what is cold and hard from your memory.’
‘No, not from mine. But I have Jankin and Jankin has access to wider knowledge.’
‘Jankin. He certainly has access. Gates swinging in all directions. How is Jankin?’
‘Jankin is hungry. He seems not to have eaten since the insurrection. He has shrunk and I expect God to take what is left of him at any moment. But he carries on regardless. His hunger is not for victuals alone.’
‘I agree. But let not his emptiness prevent us from banishing our own,’ said Thomas, taking a second piece of starling pie.
‘Where to next, Sir Nicholas?’
‘My warehouse in Soper Lane.’
‘Is there trouble in Soper Lane?’
‘I suspect abuse of my indulgence by one who is young enough to be sure of my simplicity.’
‘Slacking in Soper Lane.’
‘But not for long.’
There was still wool in the warehouse. Three men were checking the sacks, while deftly ignoring an apprentice wielding a register. A woman was pulling at samples as if about to attach them to a wheel. Nicholas picked her out as he entered the space, having scanned and counted the company in an instant. ‘Where is Epimenides?’
‘He is looking for more rope,’ said the woman pointing to a side door.
Nicholas shut his mouth on the point of sending one of the men to fetch the felon. Better to find him for himself.
His suspicions were confirmed as he stepped out into the court yard and saw a body slumped behind a barrel. He walked up to it quietly and waited for it to stir.
The eyes opened in stages, registering the waking world, Nicholas in particular, and finally the blow to the ear.
‘Your mother entrusted your care to me. Your care involves food, a bed and hard work. It does not involve staying out all night and sleeping all day. How will you ever become a master? Stand up!’
The body made a poor attempt to reach its feet while keeping one hand clasped to its head.
Nicholas caught a finger in his collar and dragged him into the back room, where the beating continued. After a minute or two he was pleased to see a better attempt to stand and a trace of colour, not to say indignation, on the features of the apprentice.
Wool was the start and the end of the matter. Yes, Nicholas was a grocer by trade but when a grocer, or a mercer, or a fishmonger makes money he becomes a merchant, and whatever else he does he exports wool. Sheep like England. The soil and the rain nourish grass as green as youth and the sheep eat that blessed grass and grow wool that is the finest in the world. God has made white gold, gold that recreates itself. Cut it off and it grows right back each time. And in Flanders and Brabant the cloth makers are gluttonous for the gold of the Welsh marshes, the Cotswolds, Lincoln or the Yorkshire moors. Nicholas’s task as a merchant was to make the deals and arrange the transport to the continent, by cart and by boat, road and sea. It was in what the ships brought back that the grocery reappeared. Dyes, spices, wine – what could not be grown in the rain or dug from English soil, he could sell to people who had become dependant on them nonetheless. He took orders across the southern shires, some from further still. Often the carts went back with wine the imported goods to the very sheep farms where the whole business began.
The money performed a complicated loop. And for much of the time there was no money, just credit. Money itself was in short supply. Though there were plenty of types of coin – penny, groat, florin, noble, mark – and plenty of mints, there was not enough actual, hard, bite-able metal to go round.
What should we say about merchants? Some were as rich as kings, or close to it. They deserved their wealth because they worked hard for it, particularly in the early stages when they took the largest risks, raising money to take a leaky ship to a new location where there might or might not be a chance to trade. These days Nicholas could sit at home and instruct agents and his business would still progress. That was his reward for years of effort and bravery. But for all his wealth, ease was not his ambition. It was not his idea of business or of life. It was not the right way. There was a purpose in trade that eluded other stations. To be a merchant you had to do what a merchant does. You could not be identified, like others by your friary, your castle or your hut. You had only what you did. So Nicholas kept his hands busy with the work because otherwise he might disappear.
As the errant Richard shuffled back to his sacks, Nicholas called the other apprentice towards him. A late consignment of five sacks had arrived from the Cotswolds. Nicholas looked over the figures. ‘One short,’ he noted.
Ralf took the book back and turned it over. One sack on its own could contain two hundred fleeces or more. So many fleeces would hardly be found on the back of a register even if they might possibly be found inside.
‘When did they arrive?’
Ralf’s eyes scuttled. ‘Nones yesterday, feast of Saint Lucy, right in the middle of it…’
‘Ridiculous! When did you count them?’
‘As they came in, Sir Nicholas.’
‘Who is my agent in the Cotswolds? Roger of Wales.’
‘Roger is dead, Sir Nicholas. His widow is managing his affairs.’
‘Can she count? No need to answer! Someone must find the missing part of the equation. You can go with Bertram. He’s over at the Custom House. I’ll give you a letter and some money. Ralf. This may not in truth be a matter of female frailty. I think you have a talent for seeing beneath the waves. I will reward you for a full account. But do not cause trouble for Bertram. He knows a lot more than you do and is less trusting than Adam.’
Although June was their preference, sheep could in theory be sheered at any time of year and at Hailes Abbey in the Cotswolds, where there had been one problem after another over the summer, they were still being stripped in October. The fleeces then trundled along muddy roads, in and out of ditches, across the hills and valleys of what was once Mercia, and finally passed through Newgate, where they ceased to be of the country and became city goods. Without legs on which to flee, they sat patiently in the warehouse awaiting whatever might be their next adventure. In fact they would be taking the last boat to Middelburg before Christmas. In the low countries the cloth workers were ready to bully them to their glorious end: to sort, beat, clean, oil, comb, spin, weave, felt, full, stretch and dye them into worsteds, maybe scarlets. The shivering sheep must grow their coats anew while women on the continent gave huge sums for their warmth to men who had never seen the fields that fed it.
Guy and Peter were waiting for him outside in the winter sun. They seemed to be arguing – at least Guy seemed to complaining and Peter was offering a blank face as a barrier. Since Peter was senior this looked upside-down. So seemed all else at this time.
In the instant they saw him the world was reformed. They were servants again in their proper order and had everything ready to for the journey home as if they had been working at it without cease. As they passed St Augustine’s they caught sight of Pieryne waiting for her mistress. Nicholas dismounted and handed his reins to Guy. He looked for his wife inside the icy stone, perhaps to offer her escort home. He could see from the shape of her body that she was gripped in the effort of her prayer. This was no easy curve of expectant praise. The blood was spurting from the mouth of St Appollonia and Idonia clutched her own jaw as if her teeth would be pulled by pagans even before the alter of the Lord. Nicholas knew how she prized her teeth, how she had cleaned and nurtured them as if they were children, how she had kept them long after her friends had lost theirs. Now the last three were ready to depart and she would not let them go.
The saint was in the throws of martyrdom and Idonia was collapsed on the step. The folds of her gown were as no painter would depict: thrown here and there in ugly angles, threatening to reveal more than was seemly for the wife of a great merchant. Nicholas signalled to Pieryne to take care of her and walked back into the light.
Nicholas looked back at St Augustine along Watling Street. The tower always seemed lop-sided to him, as if the stones had shaken themselves loose in irritation and then regretted the slide to the north. Idonia preferred this church to St Michael’s Paternoster, which was nearer the house, or St Antonin’s, where there was a memorial to the children. He had no idea why she favoured St Augustine’s with its cramped, dark interior and its, in his opinion, rude and stupid clergy.
He pulled his horse back into the middle of the street and stretched out his toes along the ancient line of the Romans. Here in Bread Street ward, he believed, was a tiny link in the chain which bound Dover, London and Chester. It had taken Roman armies half way across ancient Britain. And since then this great road had been the choice of all folk journeying in either direction. Pilgrims, merchants, tramps, priests, princes. They all took to the worthy chalk and flint, which now lurked under hoof as if it were any other of the hundred streets of the city.
He passed the Cat and Fiddle. The sour, damp smell of the beer moved his hand to his nose. People were weak. They depended on foreign comforts to keep them content. Did the soul not have enough work to do with itself without dragging in distant devils?
Nicholas reached La Riole at a furious pace, which moderated hardly as he entered his house. He was beset by matters of business. He feared the loss of a ship and cargo off France and suspected he was being cheated by farmers on his Kentish estates, and now there was the matter of the escaped fleeces of Hailes. He needed to take steps. He hesitated. He was irritated. Perhaps he would not have noticed this of himself had he not jammed into a pillar and stumbled to his knees.
He was now at the level of his wife as he had last seen her. From here the world disappeared ever upwards and was impossible to secure. Figures on the tapestries were introduced at the feet, their height angling away through the penitent’s eyebrows so that their expressions could not be read. Meanwhile there were other things to be seen that normally escaped notice. Little chips and spills and grubby marks at knee level and below where eyes were seldom fixed. Nicholas felt cold, strange. He jumped up from the floor, mortality pressing on his throat. For a moment he was caught between levels without breath. Then he realised he had been kneeling on the tip of his cotehardie and that it had twisted around his neck as he attempted to rise.
Idonia was a good woman. She had been tried in this life and, like most, had fallen short. But God must know the weight of what he forces us to carry. We are not all saints. Few of us can hold our noise while roasting on a gridiron or being stuck with arrows. Nicholas limped back to the hall where he sat before his accounts.