Nicholas Brembre 31
Epiphany arrived at last, largely by virtue of Robert’s urging of it, and it was time for one more feast. The company were well practised by now, drinking wine by the butt from Gascony and eating meat from the English shires by the cart-load. Nicholas called on everyone, in whichever combination they might be today, to raise the glasses from Venice and drink to God and to the king. Each belly was topped up with joy as the red blood from the king’s sunny southern lands drained from the cloudy receptacles.
‘Let us praise the eastern kings whose wisdom was far ahead of the world. They knew their saviour though they were not of his kin and they brought gifts for a great lord though he was lodged in a stable. We do not live in a stable and we are not God but we have gifts nonetheless.’
He laughed at Robert who was bouncing on his bench. He let his fever rise for a moment yet and then gave him the sign. Robert ran to the chest that held the presents. Nicholas had chosen the items himself. His own father had given him a pair of stilts and a kite on this day many years ago, his first Epiphany after he made the change from infant to child. But he had never received a chess set and that was what he had really wanted. Robert felt the length of the stilts and played with the kite string. He took out the chess set, picking at the pieces and turning over the board. He put it aside where Nichol’s arm could not quite reach.
Idonia was delighted with eastern perfume and Italian lace. When she inhaled she brought into her body the life of the world, and it was his world. He had travelled to exotic places and brought them back for her. She rewarded him with the light in her face and by taking the colour from his journeys. She had bought him sweets and hose and a golden clock. Robert had chosen him a book and had written in it. The ink was smudged and showed through in spots to the next page.
The servants were seated at the table at the end of the hall. They were no quieter in their celebrations than the family and guests but they were further away from the fire and thus the chief source of light. Attention claimed only a moment with them but defiance had its reward. If you held your gaze you could see Agnes at the far end holding forth as the alternative head of the feast. Even at this distance it was possible to see her eyes and feel her skin. There was a shine to both like a cascade of bright water. The others smiled and laughed following the deluge. She had them in a magic circle once again, this time a rainbow behind a waterfall.
In and out of the eating there was dancing. Musicians had been hired, secured for the third year in a row. There were few places they would be paid more and, on his side, Nicholas was keen to know what it was he allowed into his house. Musicians were essential and they were dangerous. However many years passed you would never understand them, but each time they attended without incident strengthened the sense that they were capable of good behaviour. Three men played viol, flute and bagpipes while a woman banged the drums. Nicholas had been loath to tolerate the woman on the first occasion but Idonia insisted that she stay. By the following year he was ready to forego discomfort on account of her skill, but the flute player muttered that it was not a woman anyway. This year he gave up any attempt to comprehend and let music make its own account.
Whatever the natures of these people, their playing was sublime. It was just what was needed for Christmas. The drums quickened the hearts of the company, threatening indigestion, while the tuned notes shimmered over the beat and over the stomachs, settling them back down again. There was such satisfaction over even a plain plate of pork when the flute sang about the abundance of God’s gifts. The viol plucked and sawed at the senses, the bagpipes pumped the blood and the breath, the drummer beat on the soul. What else but music might produce these effects?
Close to Nicholas sat John Frosshe. He had been released from the Tower by mainprise of John Philipot, in pain of a thousand marks. Nicholas was pleased to see him, but the others – Walter Sibyle, William Tonge, Adam Carlille and John Horn – remained in prison. John Frosshe sat firmly at the table with his shoulders pulled down. He smiled between bites and looked at ease. But his hair seemed overdone and his badges too bright. As a draper in the house of the leading grocer, he needed to show his allegiance and as a prisoner released on bail he wanted to prove his freedom.
Nicholas had business to discuss with him. John had been exporting wool on his behalf for two years now. The position of the staple was an urgent topic. Nicholas had begun sending wool to Middelburg in the Autumn with Calais cut off from the commercial continent. By there was as yet no official response to the lack of a functioning stable. Without one his takings were considerably down…
John nodded but had little more to offer on the subject. Eventually Nicholas asked him about the Tower.
‘It’s so cold, Nicholas. No wonder since the stone was mostly dug from Kent, although the fancy bits come from Caen. You’d think they, at least, would be warmer but whatever heat they had has sunk into the marshes. And the frozen wind that blows from the sea along the river comes in at all the windows, even through the edges of those that have been glazed. You’ve been to the Tower, Nicholas, but you haven’t had to live there between four faces of rag-stone. After a few weeks they granted my petition to be at large in the grounds, which was an improvement…’
‘Did you see the lions?’
‘Yes. Lurching creatures. They won’t live long. They are out of place. They don’t like the dankness of this city any more than I do.’
‘Tell me about the other men? Are they guilty?’
‘Of course not – except for John Horn.’
‘What is he guilty of?’
‘Of stupidity, vanity, greed. Most things. He thinks he is a hero or a saint for poor people, that he can represent them against the authorities. I did not realise this until it was too late. At the start I thought only that he was good at speaking to labourers and peasants. Adam and I took him out with us to Blackheath for that reason…’
‘You were at Blackheath yourself?’
‘I would have saved myself a lot of effort and a spell in gaol if I had not gone.’
‘They arrested you because of that alone?’
‘That is the only item of substance they have against me, and if I could prove my good intentions I would be safe. It was their starting point and the point to which they returned. In between they toured every other site in the story – the bridge, the gates, John Horn’s house – I wasn’t at any of them. I don’t really think they thought I was.’
‘And the others?’
‘All as puzzled as you – although being puzzled is not the same as being without any idea…’
‘You suspect a mayoral campaign.’
John raise his glass. His namesake need not be given breath in this hall.
‘King of the bean!’
John Frosshe turned his head to see who claimed the seasonal title but found it was he himself who had been honoured. His fingers had been fiddling with his cake as he spoke to Nicholas and amid the crumbs was the over-baked bean that every one had been hoping to find.
Joan had seen it: ‘Where is the crown, Idonia? We can’t have a king of the bean without a crown!’
‘Pieryne,’ called Idonia, but Pieryne sent Agnes, who came wearing the yellow-painted wood. The crown was made by Peter and Hugh. Hugh was too young to work with a saw but Peter kept fresh the skills he had learned in his youth and helped his little master notch the peaks while he himself carved swooping curves above the base. Then Hugh painted the crown and where it was not yellow it was red and blue and green in blotches since he knew it should be covered in jewels.
The women rushed around John Frosshe. His sudden royalty seemed to grant permission where previously they had held back. He had gone from outcast to king in a moment. Such is the uncertainty of God’s world. Already Agnes had come crashing down in rank as Joan snatched the crown from her head and sent her back to the dark end of the hall. Now she made John kneel and receive from her, as if from an archbishop, the right to rule them all.
‘Fine,’ said Nicholas. ‘I happily surrender my claim to the household and look forward to a more peaceful life, at least for the rest of the day.’
Nicholas picked up the book that Robert had given him. The cover was of dark leather with title so deeply embossed that it was difficult to read. He let the book fall open to chance. ‘Poetry in English – but here’s some Latin: Paupertas est absque sollicitudine semita. Poverty is a narrow path without anxiety.’ Nicholas smoothed the page. ‘I’ve heard that somewhere before. I had a friend headed for the priesthood who read such wisdom to me. Stephen. He picked especially comment on wealth, because he knew some of the things I wanted in life. But not all of them.’
‘This book is worth reading and worth locking away,’ said John Philipot over his shoulder. ‘Where did Robert get it, I wonder?’
‘I know what this is. Of course! It was written by that drooping clerk Geoffrey Chaucer once introduced to me. Lived somewhere overhanging the Fleet. Never made any money from it: many copies but no return.’
‘It is thought to be seditious,’ said John. ‘It was quoted by the rebels…’
‘Yes. I thought of looking into it before…’ He shut the book and placed it in an alcove high enough to be out of Robert’s reach.
‘It’s unusual of you not to pursue threats of disorder.’
‘Well, it is; but it’s a book…’ Nicholas knew that John would understand the spread of this. ‘Geoffrey seemed to like him and the man was mostly dead anyway.’
As bodies filled to their final stretch and dishes shrunk to sauce and crumbs, the company reorganised itself: half up, half down, propped on elbows or slumped around the room. Nicholas slid one hand from his cheek to feel the mound of his stomach. For a delicious moment he enjoyed solitude before recognising its equally sudden end in the approach of sister Margery.
‘There is something about Thomas,’ said Margery.
‘Yes,’ replied Nicholas. ‘What?’
‘Although Joan herself does not seem to notice and so does not deserve our concern, she is not being treated as she should.’
‘Yes,’ replied Nicholas. This was a bit vague for Margery so he waited for the inevitable snap to purpose.
‘I am glad we agree. What I really want to know is: what is he doing with her money?’
‘I know you have been thinking about it.’
‘What can we do?’
‘Will you watch with me?’
‘You say so little to me, Nicholas.’
‘I am never sure how you will respond.’
‘Are you frightened of me?’
‘Well, that’s a waste of effort. Let’s be frightened of Thomas.’
‘Is Henry worried?’
‘After you spoke to him about it?’
‘I will fasten my attention on whatever it is that Thomas is doing.’
Gombert jumped up of a sudden and rushed from the hall. Agnes traced his progress with a sweep of her hand but her eyes abandoned him as he swung around the fire and past the death of Arthur. She was laughing again, perhaps at Gombert, perhaps in spite of him, perhaps in relief that he had gone to vomit somewhere else.
Nicholas reached for a final tourtelete in fryure. He rubbed his tongue along the underside of the pastry, which held in one direction and melted in the other. His mouth was ravished by a rush of sugary snow. It was too much. He put his hand on the table. The oak held him while his chest churned. He took a long breath and gripped the spoon of Bohemian silver that was all that remained of his indulgence. The handle was smooth and cold. It had been polished to excess before the meal and was polished to excess once again. Multi-coloured lights ran across it as it plunged and scooped. He held up its inner face and Gombert appeared in it.
‘Are you feeling better, Gombert?’
‘I don’t know, Sir Nicholas, but a messenger has come from the king.’