Nicholas Brembre 32
The sky was brighter than summer on this afternoon in January but the ground was still soggy under foot. An entire boot could be lost in the mud in a moment, joining other objects best unknown lurking in the depths. When rain falls eyes keep down and offer some chance of avoiding detritus, but sunshine lures them up again and disaster follows. Nicholas saw the yellow ball spin across the blue and then his eyes were full of mud. Why had he not studied the sky from his horse but given equal attention to the ground once he dismounted? But the sky had such a pull on him. Now, once he had blinked, he could see it better than ever. Peter was a dark shape moving in the blue space. He put out a hand and Nicholas was resurrected.
‘Help me, God!’ said Nicholas as he looked down at his sodden state. ‘Give me your cotehardie, Peter.’
Peter did not look keen to swap garments and neither was Nicholas once he felt the quality of Peter’s cloth. Drier perhaps, but there the advantage ended. He stood half dressed in the street looking towards the city, but they were too near to the palace to turn back.
‘I will give you mine,’ said John Philipot, who had ridden with them. ‘But you had better keep it close around you. I think the sludge has seeped through to the lower reaches.’
‘But then you will not be admitted, John.’
‘He asked for you. If he wants me too you can warn him about the smell.’
Westminster Palace was combative on the question of how the season should be staged. Even in the corridors the decorations were thicker than a sawyer’s arm and longer than regret. The smell of rich food and wine was everywhere, even if none could be seen. The servants were wearing gold cloth and silly hats and laughing as they passed each other. Candles were blasting at unnecessary intervals along the walls. Nicholas pulled back into a crook under a window. He felt suddenly impoverished, as if his wealth had been stripped from him and he was dressed as a fool. The seeping mud alone did not explain his discomfort.
Opposite him a woodcut of a bishop was propped on a ledge. The holy man looked out of the picture through eyes that seemed to smart. He was leant back into a curtain to look at ease, but what was happening in his head? The whole of history might walk past his face and notice less than stain on pulp. But between the strong lines and the soft, rich colouring, there lurks the character of a man – or the means to read it at least. This is a man with no care for humanity apart from himself. He likes his title, though it barely softens his seat; his mitre is a trophy still to be surpassed; each step he takes upwards brings a new ambition into sight. How to balance the huge interior of each person against the space available in the world? The woodcut gave an answer: from behind the curtain emerged the hand and face of death, the dancing bones whose image was everywhere since the plague.
The king was seated on a carved chair. As ever men surrounded him like night walkers guarding their gains. But these were not the usual earls and bishops; instead they were officers, members of the household there to advise him regarding the loan. Among them he recognised Sir Baldwin Raddington, the king’s controller.
‘I am glad to see you again, Sir Nicholas.’ The king had grown, perhaps to his extent now, but Nicholas could not let go the slight sense of comedy in waiting on the words of a child. The king now stretched to the height of a man yet reserved the glowing skin and sweet feather-lightness of a boy. The servants noted this and ignored it at the same time. They had their own purposes under the carved ceiling and its seasonal stars.
‘The king of France is advancing on Calais. I must prepare to lead a force against them but your support is needed. I have spent my resources within this realm. I now need funds for overseas.’
Nicholas looked at Richard. He had not made a loan to the crown for a year and was not particularly in need of resuming the practice. But how fast was this calculation? Could it stand when Flanders was flattened and Calais shivered in the sight of France? His king was asking for his service and by so-doing flung open the windows to the whole land. Nicholas could see the bitter green stretches of England in winter: peasants picking at the hedgerows, lords huddled over their sums, monks and nuns numb at their prayers – all hoping they would be able to warm up and start making a living again soon. How did his decision affect them? In the end all actions of the king made a difference to them. But this action, this request in particular? Were all peasants put out if Calais was overrun? Maybe not all, but many belonged to estates – secular or ecclesiastical – that sold wool and most of that was for export. The state of the landowners affected the peasants one way or another, particularly with regard to the dues they demanded. Success in Flanders meant better trade, which encouraged the production of wool, increased the income of the lords and lowered the the burden on the peasants. It all came together and its was all under the king. He was the centre of everything and Nicholas owed a duty to him and through him to every soul in the realm.
Nicholas was still looking at the king when he heard noise from the outer chamber. The distraction was powerful but counterproductive: his eyes clung still faster to the king. His loyalty was hot in his chest, like a cake to be cooked though the precise ingredients be in doubt. The king continued to listen to his advisers on the details of the loan. He did not move the least aspect of his pose even when the duke of Lancaster pushed into the room. When the advisers stopped, Nicholas expected the duke to speak but instead the silence was for him.
‘My lord, I am willing.’
‘Good,’ said the king, melting a little.
‘So, Nicholas Brembre, you are mindful of the nation’s needs,’ said the duke. ‘You have been neglecting them a little of late.’
‘Life in the city has been more difficult than usual.’
‘For some maybe, but I have heard John de Northampton is making a huge effort to clean things up. Business, prostitution, the state of the streets, even standards of dress…’
‘Yes, my lord, but appearances may not give the best guide to what is important and even the best of mayors cannot guarantee that trade will always flow freely.’
‘Have you lost trade?’
‘Yes my lord, I have lost trade, a great deal of it, as a result of the war in Flanders.’
‘Did you not think of making cloth yourself, rather than exporting wool? That would solve more than one of your difficulties.’
‘Sir Nicholas is here to see me because we have common interests,’ interposed the king. ‘I must push back the French and restore peace to the lowlands for the glory of the true church. He wants to make sure his ships can get to the continent. There is no point in discussing unrelated issues.’
The duke of Lancaster said nothing for a moment but he was like a poisonous head of pollen throbbing in the wind. ‘No money for Spain I suppose,’ he resumed. ‘London’s a sorry, damp sort of place. It is a pusher of toy boats that float only as far as Flanders. You could be part of a wider world – England could span the continent.’
‘Yes, my lord, that would be a wonderful thing,’ said Nicholas.
‘Then you will offer Lancaster a loan?’
‘My money is pledged to the king, my lord.’
‘Well, Nichol, no olives for you.’
Richard waved Nicholas out into the antechamber where he paced for a while until Baldwin came out to resume negotiations. They sat at a table under the window and trailed ink over parchment before rolling their copies into pipes. As he stood up to go Nicholas saw at last how badly the mud had stained his hose. Baldwin’s eyes were too carefully fixed for hope of mercy.’
‘I hope your wife is not ill-disposed,’ he said with a sharp note in his voice.
Nicholas could not remember if Sir Baldwin was married himself, or even if he was supposed to know. ‘Thank you, she is well and I hope to be back with her as soon as possible, allowing for the state of the roads.’
‘Go carefully, Sir Nicholas.’
Peter was in King Street with the horses but John Philipot had gone home.
‘What did he wear?’
‘Your cotehardie, Sir Nicholas.’
‘The muddy one?’
‘Sir John said it had dried a little.’
‘Peter! Is that likely in this cold? He should have had yours.’
‘Sir John would not take it.’
‘No, he wouldn’t. Let’s get home before Epiphany is done and all wise men have disappeared.’
Robert was asleep. Despite his promise to stay awake until sunrise, his eyes were shut as tight as clams. Around them the skin had the purply hue of exhausted contentment, while his loose lips signalled a will that had exhausted itself completely before it knew it had an end. The rest of Robert was securely under the bedclothes in the cold room. His bed was small and fitted into the corner. Nicholas remembered when he had shared the room with more than one child and servants besides. But he had built on the side of the house in order to secure more space in his sleep, as well as to reduce the snores and smells emitted by the company of the bedchamber.
Idonia mounted the side of the bed closest to Robert’s cot. She had put out her candle already but Nicholas let his burn. He set it on the chest by the wall, close to his pillow. He wanted to talk about the day and to see the yellow light on his wife’s face and to imagine that she was warm for his touch.
‘Gombert did well. Who else would have heard the messenger, or thought to listen out for one? And but one person in the whole kingdom would have thought of sending one on such a day.’
‘How is the king?’
‘He is taller.’
‘Is he well?’
‘Yes, I have never seen a person look as well as he.’
‘He is a very beautiful young man.’
‘There is a stillness, a graveness about him. The duke of Lancaster interrupted us and I sensed intense irritation from the king but he expressed it all in one quiet word.’
‘The king of Castile was there too?’
‘Yes, well he’s no nearer placing his hands on that crown than he ever was. He wanted me to give money for his cause when I had just agreed to do so for the king’s. I would not do so if I had all the gold in the world. His causes are all vain and I suspect him of being behind much ill temper in the city, including the current frenzy against the citizens in the Tower.’
‘John Frosshe was badly wounded in the Tower,’ said Idonia. ‘He was thrown against the corner of a table causing a rupture.’
‘A rupture of what.’
‘He didn’t say. Should I have asked?’
‘It can’t be that bad.’
‘He does limp a little.’
Nicholas looked at his wife. She seemed neither alarmed nor entertained. He waited for a while so as not to taint with indignity the question he was desperate to ask: ‘Was Christmas good?’
‘It was very good. All of it. You arranged it very well. We are blessed,’ she agreed. ‘We have so much. And Robert is buried in riches.’
‘Sometimes I wonder…’
‘Whether we have too much?’
‘And yet, I am a merchant and a merchant is measured by his wealth – he is his wealth. If I had no money I would be another sort of man. I would have no power over the city and what happens there. I would not have a household to keep to God’s plan. If I can do good I can do more of it because of my wealth. Wealth is ability, ability to act. Actions may be good or bad, but without the wealth there is a limit to what can be done.’ He was aware of falling through his words with an urgency that had cut him loose. Idonia looked as if she wanted to catch him but he was falling still. ‘Perhaps the amount of my wealth is not so much the issue. Perhaps we are not really wealthy after all, rather guardians of an ability from God to contribute to the world…’
‘We are very wealthy, Nichol.’ Idonia showed him the jewellery she was wearing even here in bed. There was a ruby at her throat and another on each hand. ‘These are not powers or abilities: they are real. They came out of the cold hard earth in a distant place and travelled here under guard while they were still dull. But when they were cut and cleaned they became a means to show that a wife is beautiful so long as she is rich.’ She laughed at his expression. ‘But If your luck failed, would I care if I had plain white skin without these drops of blood?’
Idonia said the strangest things. Her father had been a merchant, her husband was a merchant, her brothers-in-law were all merchants, but she had some idea that money was beside the point. ‘The city of London depends on the work of good men, and so in turn does the king and the country.’
‘But does it all depend on you?’