Nicholas Brembre 39

by socalledstories

The war went well. The bishop brought his blessing to the towns of Flanders: Gravelines, Dunkirk, Bourbourg, Berguqes, Poperinghe and Nieuport and then laid siege to Ypres. Nicholas was pleased that his money was put to good use and John Philipot had a glow about him, almost like a girl, although he was worried about Ypres.

‘What’s the problem with Ypres?’

‘Ypres is well prepared and a siege can drain time and energy that could be spent making progress elsewhere. How are your ships of war?’

‘Still afloat, but no wool in them of course.’

‘You can take some space on mine.’

‘Where are you sailing?’

‘Anywhere but the Flemish coast. I hear you are journeying into Stepney with Henry. Perhaps you could look into Hulles for me.’

‘I would be happy to look at any of your estates. Henry wants to check his. I want to go to Homerton.’

‘To Joan’s house?’

‘I want to see what is happening there, since Thomas will not tell me.’

‘Nothing, I would think.’

‘I want to be sure of that.’

‘Why not send Jankin?’

‘I like the place. I first met Idonia there.’

‘What? Is that an explanation? Not from Nicholas Brembre, least likely of all mortals to succeed with it.’

‘Perhaps you are right, in which case you can take my visit as a measure of my fears about Thomas. You do not need to come.’

On the feast of St Barnabas, Nicholas set out from La Riole with Ralf and Jankin. They walked along ahead of him, Ralf leading Jankin’s horse. Ralf and Jankin. There was something there. Nicholas was not surprised. It seemed an obvious connection: the two most devious characters in the household. But Jankin had not been devious before the revolt. Ralf, on the other hand, had never been anything else. He should have got rid of him straight from the ship. But there are many mysteries in the world and one of them was what happened to Adam. The mystery was so deep that Nicholas could not find the bottom of it. So Ralf stayed and so did his master’s fear of him.

Jankin took Ralf on his trips around the city. He said that Ralf was a good assistant because he opened his mouth only when necessary and watched and remembered everything. When Jankin reported back on his meeting with mercer John Boseham, he granted that it was Ralf who noticed the twitch in his eye as he promised his support and the movement of his foot behind the counter where a fine hood and belt from the shop of Northampton were sliding out of view. This was how Jankin knew when to offer the packets of rare spices that were squeezed in his purse waiting for their opportunity to encourage. And Ralf, when needed, would run back to La Riole for more saffron or cubeb and smile as he did it. Nicholas had seen him. He was quick and light and he knew the alleys.

Ralf never smiled when he did his ordinary duties. He didn’t like being a means of ease for people with more money than him. That is how he saw it, certainly. But how else would it be? As an apprentice he had a chance to reach the level of his master if he worked and was lucky. You could not go back and be born again because you felt your first attempt had been inadequate. In fact Ralf had some advantage from his birth. His father was a middling sort of spicer and his mother had brought money from her family in Kent. That had been enough background to gain him a place in the Brembre household and that was certainly an advantage. Jankin was less favoured than Ralf. He had begun in the kitchen when the previous boy died in a return of the plague. Servants were scarce in the aftershock. He was taken because he could wield a knife and name most of the vegetables.

Nicholas had been thinking he must get Ralf on another ship before the stretch of time and nerves made it impossible. He would not send him with another apprentice but with Hamo, an older man, whom Nicholas had put in charge of the warehouse at Billingsgate in recognition of his iron head and grip like a leech. They collected him and two others, Aaron and James, along the way.

La Marie lay at harbour below the bridge, having escaped requisition. She was blessed by the knack of survival. She had been built in the same solid clinker style as those of the Vikings for hundreds of years before. Her wood was as of other ships, no more buoyant, nor her sail more sturdy, but her record was luminous compared to others’. She always reached her destination. Today she was headed to Middelburg full of wool, apart from ten barrels of tar belonging to a Norwegian merchant who had pulled into London short of his preferred destination.

Nicholas wanted to check the stowing of the tar, which must not threaten the wool, a fair amount of which belonged to the archbishop of Canterbury. The captain would be annoyed that he was not trusted to do this correctly, but that was not a disadvantage. The problem was the other way around: when they thought you had no suspicion of them and so had rope enough to slack. But there was nothing to be feared today. He could see as he climbed down the ladder that the tar was carefully stowed and secured and that the lighter fleeces were grouped together to balance the density of the tar.

It felt right and good to be here. Outside sound was washed away, there was a reassuring rock underfoot and the rich smell of wood, which the tar could not quite overcome. Nicholas felt warm blood flow to all parts of his body and a tingling in his throat. He opened his mouth to let out the moan that had gathered there. He would like to lie down here in the slightly damp warmth and stay silent forever.

‘Anything for the journey, Sir Nicholas?’

‘There is something under my seal to give to Peter Mark in Middelburg. Ralf has it. Perhaps his care of it should be checked from time to time.’ Nicholas stared hard at the captain, who obliged by blinking once too often. He had heard about Ralf then. ‘He is very young,’ said Nicholas, as if this caulked all the holes.

Jankin was giving his own set of instructions to Ralf, who stood with soft-stone profile as ever. What did Jankin need to say that had not already been said by Nicholas himself? After some more of this Ralf nodded and wrought a smile that almost convinced. He turned away and disappeared into the ship.

‘Jankin! You’ve been long enough at your farewell. We have business and I don’t want to miss Sir Henry.’

In fact they were ahead of Henry and waited under the rooms of Geoffrey Chancer in Aldgate, looking out towards the country. The wheel had turned to summer. Around the edges of London the sheep were shorn, showing their fat bellies like hills after the scythe. The lumpy shapes of the cattle were becoming more of a size as grass converted calves into milk or meat. The meadows were young too, showing in raw strips between the older surfaces of heath and woodland from which they had been cut. Back within the wall London stank – partly from the pigs, which ran everywhere causing chaos, but mainly from the people. Even in open spaces such as church yards, there were crowds enough to raise an odour. Nicholas looked forward to filling his nostrils with the marsh wind.

Henry had brought an army with him – they might have defeated the French king and the anti-pope without assistance from the crusade. ‘This is a wild place, Nichol,’ he explained as they passed the abbey of St Clare, with St Botolph’s church at Aldgate still in clear view behind them. ‘The peasants see their opportunity. Last year Henry Gisors was surrounded at Kingswood and had to give one of them an almighty kicking before the rest ran away. You don’t know what you will find in the darkness behind a row of trees. I wouldn’t expect anyone who lives around here to come to my rescue. They don’t care – don’t even know who we are! Look the other way while a good man’s throat was slit. Still, it is beautiful: the green meadows and trees, the yellow wheat, the flowers, the birds, the sky!’

They travelled the designated distance to Mile End where both Henry and John Philipot had property. They crossed the site of the parley with the rebels, where Wat Tyler had flaunted his miserable power, waving his head about only days before it was struck off on Smithfield. Two years later scorch marks in the earth had still not been healed by the grass, which held back in drab clumps. Summer sports left their own destruction but the grass always grew back over these familiar wounds. Around the edges rubbish had been dropped or kicked aside: knife handles, straps, bones, badges, names cut in tree trunks. How many from the games, how many from the insurrection?

They visited Hulles as requested by John. Henry took longer at his inspection here than of his own (Margery’s) property. He was looking to see what had been done that was new, which he might attempt in his own domain. There was much talk of alterations as they branched off towards Hackney, passing the leper hospital of St Mary Magdalen at a stiff pace.

Henry talked about his house in Thames Street. He was extending it to one side but had been warned against encroaching on common access to the river. ‘Why would they think I would not respect the rights of others? Let me tell you what we are building – when they let us. Two new rooms and an extension to the solar.’

‘Why do you need new rooms?’

‘One will be for me. Margery calls it my counting room. One will be somewhere to put stuff that can’t stay out in the yard.’

‘What’s wrong with the hall?’

‘We want the hall to look tidier.’

‘Why are you extending the solar if you are clearing the hall?’ asked Nicholas as he studied a line of cloud in the distance. You have no children – what is all this space for?

News of Henry’s extension bounced off the trees at side of the road and echoed into the gloom of the wood. Nicholas could hear Jankin behind him tapping his palm over his open mouth in reflection on the Vanner plans. Nicholas looked back at him sharply and the performance ceased.

‘How’s the wine trade?’

‘Well, shipping is a little disrupted at present. I’ve been trading from Southampton – in part at least.’

‘I thought you had.’

‘What’s a merchant to do? That is our life: moving stuff from place to place. If we can’t do that we cease to be.’

‘If we can’t make money we can’t eat and so indeed we cease to be,’ Nicholas agreed. But before we get to that extreme we cannot build extensions to our houses. ‘The crown has often shown favour to Southampton as a way to counter the power of London.’

‘I know, I know, Nichol. But what is a merchant to do?’

It was a steaming day and Nicholas paused for a drink, spilling drops of water which boiled on the stones. Two lizards faced each other on the road – red and green with dark hands. They circled, confused by their likeness. Fight or flight, or maybe something else? One puts out a tongue and stabs at its fellow. The other withdraws for a moment but remains on the hot mettle on the other side of the mirror. It spreads its fingers. The first lizard tries to secure its grip and to spring, but is crushed by the wheel of a bread cart returning from the city. Nicholas handed the water bottle to Jankin, who passed it back to Aaron from the warehouse, who pushed it into some impossible place behind his saddle.

They moved on in the wake of Henry’s army. A few sheep grazed at the end of a field, raising their heads to bleat about bad weather on the horizon. Nicholas looked around for shelter, though the storm was far away. The sun was still on the towers and London, at this distance, looked bright and warm like youth, like the innocence of a child enclosed by its mother. Must this innocence submit to the darkness of hell?

The men who hacked out the great fields of Stepney had left between them reminders of the mighty forest that covered the kingdom of Britain. Nichol’s father had brought him to this very wood and told him stories of the creatures that once lived among the trees. Henry’s worries of the wild, which Nicholas had dodged easily at the time, had circled ahead and now confounded him with remembrance. He looked up into a sky that seemed almost as it was that day, though thirty years had flicked its face since then. The clouds began on the eastern horizon in delicate puffs and tucks. As they were pushed out from behind they took on air and expanded like wool as it is pulled from a sheep’s back. Then they were magnified again and for a third time, taking on colour and dropping huge shadows over the green, though not yet rain. A devil cloud crossed the sun, which tried to burn it from above, causing blades of hot silver to slice its edges. From the ground, the belly of the cloud was blurred like smoke. Could there really be a devil sitting on its top?

Peasants surrounded them. He had seen one lurking in the wood, picking at something in his pocket. His father did not notice but continued with the history lesson. Nicholas stopped listening and began mapping the relations of the trees and the distances to the sunlight between them. The brightness to the left was cut suddenly in half by the silhouette of a man.

John Brembre had brought servants but had held them at a distance. They had not entered the wood. Nicholas took his father’s hand and tried to pull him to the right. John snatched it back in the moment before perceiving the danger. Six of them, hoods over their faces. Nicholas guessed the weakest from his gait. They could push him aside and break the ring. But his father would not follow. His father was talking to the villeins. He was asking what they wanted and why. With tears on his cheeks he was asking why those who had been saved by God from the plague should want to torment their fellow survivors. And did they not fear the wrath of God and even the return of the pestilence?

Nicholas could see that they did not. He lunged at the weak link but the other five jumped on his father and he had to go back. He grasped his father’s purse and flung it further into the wood. Two men chased it and disappeared into the gloom. Nicholas tried to pull another from his father’s throat while shouting for help. The servants crashed through the undergrowth and the assailants ran away. The weak link was still winded on the floor. His hood fell clear as he lurched to his feet. His face was smooth but drained by fear, much as Nicholas’s own. They were of an age.

John Brembre was slumped by the bottom of a tree. He looked sinister as a lump in the dark of the wood. This worthy man could change his appearance so suddenly and yet be dead to the world. The servants rushed to him while Nicholas ran away to the edge of the wood. Why did he do that? Might his father be dying?

Violence was of this world. It rose up from the world, from the people in it, they created violence but they were made by God. God himself inflicted violence on the world. Violence took many forms: righteous violence against the enemies of God: in the holy land, in France and Spain, and at home through the punishment of the courts, by heads of households and masters of guilds. Beyond the control of institution and tradition, violence began to show an uglier nature. This violence sprang from the moment, from anger, jealousy, lust or greed. It could arise in any setting – rich, poor, one against one, gang against gang, mob on master, man on maid. There were no rules for this type of violence. The violence itself was the rule. When the peasants revolted they thrust their pitch forks without clear aim. But their thuggery had its affect: it terrified anyone who had anything to lose. Property exists by law or by force. Those who rely on the first fear the second. For a moment everything was lost to violence before chance and the king pulled it back. Law knows that at bottom it has no power. But violence, which does, is ignorant. It jumps up from its pile of rags because they have become too hot and itchy and the horn has sounded.

They continued toward Old Ford, although neither of them wanted to cross the Lea. Over the heath to their left they could see the tower of St Augustine’s at Hackney village, nearer to hand the dwellings of mortals: cattle sheds, pigsties, peasant cots. Some of the land here was planted with fruit and vegetables and there was tanning, fulling and milling nearer the river, but the chief industries were eating grass and making hay.

Henry had several properties to visit in the area and invited Nicholas to see what he had done with them or what he intended to do. Nicholas, however, had his own projects and pointed his men onto Wick Lane, which followed north until it crossed Hackney Brook at the edge of Homerton. Most of the hamlet lay along the high street to the west but the party turned eastwards once more and rode a little further past a tiny brewery to a house that stood on its own.

The house at Homerton was surrounded on three sides by pasture and on the fourth by trees and a pond. Idonia’s mother had loved this escape from the city and had spend much time here in the summer. But the rest of the family, John Stodeye in particular, had cursed its inconvenience. A merchant wants to be in the midst of things to be able to catch his opportunities, to be easily reached by partners or prospects. He does not want to ride back and forth for hours a day, and have nowhere comfortable in the city to rest between bursts of business, just so that his wife can sit beside a pond. So the house was kept mainly for holy days and the women held court there, the men appearing and disappearing as duty allowed.

What did Nicholas suspect? Nothing clearer than that Thomas had plans. Nobody lived here now. Someone from the farm house looked in and did some work. Nicholas peered through a low window into a passage. Nothing there. The path looked disturbed, which meant little more. Nicholas sent Jankin back in search of the caretaker and sat down by the pond. It was fed by the river Lea. Idonia walked to the edge of the pond and slipped off her shoes. He was shocked and rushed to her side. Her toes were in the water and she giggled at the tiny ripples that fanned out into the darker space beyond. Was he supposed to marry a fish?

Nicholas stood in silence on the footmarks of the maid, but his feet were dry and made no ripples. He walked along the edge of the pond towards the river and found that poles had been thrust into the earth at intervals. The gravel held them firmly in place. He saw the flattened tops from the hammer that had beaten them in. From the bank of the river the view opened up and the extent of its use became apparent. Here and there cattle were treading grass into mud in order to drink but between them were weirs and ramps and other aids to fishing and greater purposes: brewing, fulling and milling. He could just see the site of Temple Mills, owned originally by the Knights Templar and, since their suppression, by the Hospitallers. There were plenty of mills besides: this was the reason for the quantity of bread that was vomited into the city from the east.

He stood for a while and then returned to the pond. Idonia’s mother was huddled with Joan, her youngest daughter, in the shade of a willow tree.

‘This is the most beautiful place in the world.’

‘We want to be here forever.’


‘In the summer.’

‘Without any rain.’

‘Or ants.’

‘Or frogs.’

‘I like frogs,’ said Joan.

They enjoyed this game, which was designed to end in disagreement. Three, four steps, maybe more, before they came to the point of parting. Then they would beat each other with soft fists and issue the half-strangled screams of ladies showing their spirit.

The child inherited the house, perhaps because she played these games so well, and she took it with her when she grew to be a wife. The law says that a man has use of his wife’s dower. She has no power over it until he dies. But the law does not take into account the natural rights of families, their knowledge of the wishes of forebears, of traditions and interests beyond the cold blur of official judgment. A woman may well trust her husband, particularly when she is young, to take good care of her interests. But other men are not so obliged. They are free to see the slight in his stewardship.

The caretaker was unhappy. He bowed his head to Nicholas but pointed back towards the road.

‘What is happening here?’

‘I don’t know, God’s health to you, sir. Master Thomas comes sometimes. He pays me to make sure no-one else does.’

‘Do you know who I am?’

Now he knew: ‘You are Sir Nicholas Brembre.’

‘I am Thomas’s brother. I arranged his marriage to Joan, who brought this property to him. It is a Stodeye house. I have been here many times before. So tell me why there are poles driven into the bank here.’

‘I don’t know, Sir Nicholas. Master Thomas pays me to look after the place, not to know anything about it.’

‘But he does tell you to keep people out.’

‘Of course, he would not mean you, Sir Nicholas.’

Jankin had been circling the house. ‘Plenty of cart tracks, Sir Nicholas.’

‘Enough! We will be on our way.’

‘There is something else to see,’ said Nicholas to Jankin as they dropped back down to Old Ford. ‘Aaron and James can stay outside. I have rented this building from the Knights Hospitaller, who own much round here. They have used it in the past for storing old armour and weapons – indeed they have left some of it behind. It has stiff walls and a strong lock.’ Nicholas thrust the key deep into the door and twisted it sharply. ‘I want to build up some stores here before the election. The road is good for carts. You can begin organising. Pick one or two men who are likely to be unconcerned by what you are doing. Indeed, if Aaron and James keep their silence, they may be your men.’

‘The road is good,’ agreed Jankin as they moved along it in the direction of home.

‘It needs to be for all the milk, bread and cloth that goes into the city, not to mention what comes over Old Ford from foreign parts.’

‘Yes, Sir Nicholas.’

At Bethnal Green they stopped to water the horses and Nicholas looked across to the grand manor house of Stepney and Hackney, which belonged to the bishop of London. All these rich residents of London had places out in the wilds where they could smell the cow dung, swallow the wasps and get stuck in the bogs. He laughed and stroked the mane of his horse. The quiet was good, though. It would be easier to work here, at least that part of work that did not involve shouting at people. Thinking, reading, writing – they would all be easier and more enjoyable without the usual distractions.

Shoreditch lay ahead of them in the distance, Holy Well Priory shining in the light against the progress of the storm. The darkness rolled westwards at a steady pace, like a tide climbing a steep beach.

‘Perhaps we should have stayed where we had cover,’ muttered Jankin.

‘No, we will out ride it.’

They reached the junction with Ermine Street as the rain caught them. Still a third of a mile out from the city, they galloped down to Bishopsgate, thus returning one spoke round on the wheel from where they had left in the morning. With them came a deluge of travellers from Middlesex, Hertfordshire and all places to the north. It was as if the storm had pulled the sun into winter and the curfew had already been rung. They looked for shelter but were so wet already that it hardly seemed worth the delay. Instead they maintained their damp procession down Bishopsgate Street and onto Cornhill, like the remains of an army that had been routed and is now soaked in blood.

The rain was easing and thunder and lightning were stretching further apart as they headed west towards Poultry. In the returning light Nicholas recognised figures ahead. ‘Find out where those three are going,’ he said quietly to Jankin, who knew not to swing his head and had, in any case, already seen the party. Richard Norbury, Robert Ryseley and Thomas Usk had slid out of a building by the Stocks Market and were off in the direction of Chepe.

‘What business have they?’

‘They came out scowling and cursing, Sir Nicholas. I don’t know what their business was but it fared badly. ‘