Nicholas Brembre 40
A strange bleating sound was coming from an alley in La Riole. Peter heard it on his way out to Southwark and he heard it again on his way back. Since he knew from Jankin of the hunt for the vagabond, he mentioned the matter to his master, who called for Gombert to fetch the beadle.
Half way down the alley an old door had been pressed against the wall to make a house for fairies. A ripe smell emitted from it. The beadle took his stick and rattled it along the side of the shelter. There was a gasp followed by a low moaning. Nicholas realised that the moaning had been there all along but had failed to rise above the threshold of his attention. Now the moaning increased and he wondered at it.
The moaner stayed deep inside the shelter. However fungal the condition of its existence, it did not want to come out and face the hostility of the outside world. The beadle aimed more blows at the roof of the fairy house but the moaning continued without restraint. Nicholas wanted to know what was putting up so much resistance but he also wanted to get back to his business. He signalled to the beadle and they each grabbed an end of the door, hoisting it across the alley like a slab of stone from a grave. The curiosity which had driven Nichol’s action did not sustain his agency once the truth was revealed. The thing was grimy and slight and bloody at one end. A child? A woman? Both? – and something else bulging in the folds of blanket. Something unspeakable from which his soul recoiled.
‘Find a woman!’ called the beadle.
‘What another one? We have too many already.’
‘Call your maid, your wife, someone who can deal with this.’
Nicholas looked back down the alley. Gombert was whimpering at the opening. He ran off towards the house and returned with Agnes, a bucket and a bundle of cloth. Gombert wiped the head of the moaner while, at the other end, Agnes groped under the blanket and abstracted the lump, re-wrapping it in a piece of clean cloth. She asked for a knife and Nicholas gave her his dagger, with which she made a single cut. She then moved to Gombert’s end where she pulled up the fairy torso. The moaning increased sharply and Agnes encouraged it.
Nicholas stumbled and had to grab for the wall. Even this, which had been solid for as long as he had lived in La Riole, denied him comfort and his hand came away clutching dust.
Now Agnes had another bundle, smaller than the first. Was either of them a baby? Neither made a noise. Agnes was feeling the stomach of the girl. Then she came to Nicholas and asked for his cloak.
In shock he yielded what seemed his only means to a role in this mystery play. Once the woman had been enclosed in his silk, the moaning stopped and Agnes hugged her and wiped the water from her face. ‘She will die if we leave her here. Someone must carry her back to the house.’
Another opportunity, which he grasped, though he found he had grasped very little. For the second time in the season he found himself carrying an ailing wench and this one was still lighter than Pieryne. Agnes stepped along beside him as he followed her orders. She was like a torch burning the side of his face. He could not look at her, while she looked only at the girl.
‘How did you know what to do?’ he asked her.
‘I was the eldest of a family that lived in one room. Seven were born after me and four died. Everything you really need to know could be learned in that room.’
‘You have used your knowledge well.’
She smiled but said: ‘My knowledge was not enough.’
Walter Sibyle and his companions had been bailed from the Tower but were no longer admitted to the common council nor allowed take civic office. Walter was indignant: ‘First they silence me by putting me in prison but even when they let me out – thanks for your money, Nichol – I am barred from any place where my voice might be heard.’
‘The original charge was unjust,’ said Nicholas. ‘But while it remains, silence is your best option.’
‘Why should I be held by these walls without mortar?’
‘Because you could be hanged by a real rope.’
‘You know they made this up for their own ends?’
‘Certainly. Most of it anyway.’
‘Most of it?’
‘I’m not sure about John Horn.’
Walter laughed. His face was pale as if even the sun had been forbidden to look on him. The laughter slid around his skin and then dripped off the point of his chin. ‘Of course John Horn is doubtful. John Horn has always been doubtful and is well known for it.’
‘Don’t think that I had doubts of you, Walter. But you do think that John allied himself to the rebels?’
‘The way he spoke to them at Blackheath was alarmingly fraternal. And then he invited them back to his house. They stayed there through the night.’
‘What, all of them?’
‘I don’t know the details. But unless he had some devious plan to distract them or spy on them I can only assume his attentions were unfeigned.’
It was a dull day, grey-blue like floating in milk, as if there were some experiment in hell to torture through lack of sensation. Nicholas sat with Walter in the churchyard of St Magnus the Martyr, surrounded by wood and stone. On a day like this you doubted that anything was alive. The trees were as pallid and still as the grave stones and the church itself had that eerie feeling as when the cross and the host have been taken out and buried on Good Friday. But it was August and the mother of God was about to be assumed into heaven.
Nicholas dug in his clotting brains for what he wanted to know: ‘It was not John who opened the bridge?’
‘It seems not. I am accused of that, though I confess I was in a trunk in the cellar most of the time. Meanwhile, John Horn was seen in the King’s Head on Chepe boasting of his new friends from Kent. That was when the bridge was opened. He was waiting for them, true enough, but he did not let them in.’
‘And the others from the Tower?’
‘No. Not them. They were all grabbed like me for the politics. Adam Carlisle is supposed to have opened Aldgate but I don’t believe it. Nothing he has said makes me think him guilty; while John Fresshe’s early release is an admission he has done nothing worthy of note.’
‘Who could it be?’
‘I don’t know Nicholas. You should have more idea than me. You have been free and you have been campaigning. You have probably spoken to everyone there is in the world – certainly more people this year than I have spoken to in my life. What do they say?’
‘Nothing about the bridge, since I do not ask them.’
‘Why do you care so much anyway?’
‘I care because the wrong people are getting the blame.’
‘Well, I always work on that basis anyway. It helps me avoid all sorts of obstacles. Tell me about the campaign.’
They sat among the dead things and talked about the campaign, but Nicholas had another meeting to attend. It was the Friday before the Feast of the Assumption and a congregation was scheduled at the Guildhall. This was the goad that had begun their conversation and now ended it, bouncing Walter back to his preferred level of pique.
Nicholas had become used to the mountainous profile at the head of the hall. The rise over the chamberlain’s huddle, the pinnacle of the Northampton pate, the sudden drop to the table, followed by the gentler climb to Thomas Usk’s twitching shoulder and the low lines of Richard Norbury and John More. It was what he saw when he first entered the chamber, even if he did not actually look that way, even if the peaks were not yet in place. These hills seemed as old as the Guildhall itself and would last as long. Other men changed position time by time, sometimes hour by hour. He tried to track them with his eyes while keeping his nose to the front. For this purpose the back of the hall was the best place to sit, though it was also good to be with men of similar mind. These were growing in number, like lions loping back for the feast. There was a shiver in the mountains and something of a collapse around Thomas’s shoulder.
The mercers had certainly scented gain. Robert Herringay and John Shadworth, leading members of their guild, sat in the row before Nicholas and John Fresshe flickered in the corner of his eye. Animals are drawn by blood but what the mercers smelled was the Middelburg staple. Calais had been of no use to them because, although they could sell wool there as well as anyone, English cloth was banned in Flanders and there was little of interest for them to bring back. Holland and Zeeland, by contrast, welcomed the fabrics of Albion and English mercers could return from Middelburg with flax, canvas and linen. This pulled them towards the grocers and their regular allies, who were calling for Middelburg to be recognised as the official staple. And so, as if stupid, Nicholas was reminded that politics was nothing but coins shuffling on a board.
John de Northampton opened the meeting with a thunderclap, albeit most men had felt the rain ahead of it. His mouth twisted in disdain as he announced the failure of the siege of Ypres. ‘Why paddle across the channel and fall in a heap when a mighty posse might have swept across the continent and taken Castile?’
Nicholas offered a rattling sigh in acknowledgement of the collapse of the crusade, but he clamped his teeth against the ridiculous support for Lancaster. How could John conclude that a more distant target would be easier to hit? But better keep still and let the meeting fart on. There will be plenty more to provoke and occasionally some real purpose in opposition.
‘And almost before the war is over we have beggars claiming to have been wounded at Ypres. One in particular states that he overheard Bishop Despenser arguing with his knights, as if that would surprise us into believing his tale. I certainly find the first claim harder to believe than the second. What was the name of the beggar?’ John asked of his clerk, Thomas Usk. But it was Richard Odyham the chamberlain who responded: ’Hugh de la Pole. Pillory with whetstone.’
John turned on him as if he were interrupting an official statement rather than replying to a question. John knew very well who it was that had been before him in court that week and what punishment he had imposed. The feigned failure of memory emphasised his own significance at the expense of the subject. But Richard did not feel the pulse of John’s performance – or did not want to. He withdrew with a faint smile, pulling his hands from the table and gathering together his goose feathers and common place book. At the other end sat Thomas Usk with his own pen and papers. The quill flickered and the eyes dragged down. His nose seemed to grow in response to his master’s voice.
John was complaining about the overturning by parliament of his ban on victuallers holding office. There was some view in Westminster that he had exceeded his powers, but what was important was that the people of the city could eat without falling into arrears with the rent. For this reason it was better to break the monopoly of the fishmongers and allow strangers to sell fish in the city since their prices were lower. The ban on holding office was essential to prevent reversal of this measure by intractable members of the corporation. He would find a way to bring it back. Mayor John promised, not for the first time, to do whatever was necessary to protect the honest poor of the city and anyone else who struggled below the excessive levels of wealth of the few.
But what did wealth have to do with merit or need of favour? And what right did John have to ferret among the rules and customs of the city so that he could bend them to his ends? Was there a hint at an attempt to prevent Nicholas from standing against him as mayor? It seemed unlikely to succeed with only two months to go but John was full of chances. The bench beneath him felt viciously hard of a sudden and he stuffed his worry there as a cushion. But the cushion grew, even as the Northampton frenzy blew itself out. Nicholas felt he was rising slowly above the heads of the other citizens, until there was a risk he might be lost among the ghosts of past councilmen. What might he hear from them?
From far below he could hear reports of beer being captured on the bridge, lapses in dress on the watch, worthy arrangements for the orphan of a tapicer, dubious pardons for those involved in the resurrection, letters patent regarding the king’s crown pledged as security for a loan, need of a new carpenter to the assize of nuisance and on and on, fart after fart. Nicholas bumped back down on the bench in time for the mayoral complaint about brokerage and false contracts.
Everything turned around John. He was the cause of the good news and the scourge of those responsible for the bad. If neither applied, he still had something clever to say on the subject. His voice was like a mill stone turning on diamond. The scratch turned to scream, turned to the screech of a devil. Sometimes Nicholas could not bear to hear the devil’s speech and he put his hands over his ears. How could he dare to say these things, these lies? That the richer guilds put down their juniors, that they followed only their own interests, not those of the city? That the palace had seen what they were up to and would throw them aside?
‘The duke of Lancaster, he means,’ said Hugh Fastolf to his right. ‘He should not be so confident of his influence, which is waning.’
‘Northampton with Lancaster, or Lancaster with the king?’
The meeting had gone on long enough and Hugh, like many others, was encouraging its end by abandonment of all restraint in sound and movement. ‘Come on Nichol, Sir Margery has got bored and left the hall. I thinking he was hoping you would follow – did you not see him waving?’
Fantasy apart, Nicholas had sat so long on the bench that his buttocks ached and pain shot through his hips when he stood. Sweat oozed in the grooves of his face and back, and dizziness in the head opposed rigidity of the body. Was this why he had to confront the mayor as soon as he had left the dais? ‘You talk about the interests of the city – why do you think you don’t have to follow the rules?’
‘You think I don’t follow the rules?’ John laughed. ‘The rules don’t belong to you or any other man. The rules are just rules. They are not the rules. I follow the rules that seem best to me.’
‘How can you claim merit in that?’
‘I can’t claim much, but it is no more nor less than can anyone else.’
‘I thought from my boyhood that rules were settled in the towns, cities or manors for which they were made and had their strength and reason from them. London is a place of substance, solid and reliable, so that it can provide support for the hopes and understanding of its citizens. Lancaster, on the other hand, wanders all over, giving little sense of purpose or of intention to whose expectations fall there.’
John was quiet now. His mouth was shut like a privy door. His nostrils clenched and his eyes rotated. He kept his face to Nicholas but he turned his body away and waved a finger at John More, who slithered out into the corridor. Nicholas pushed for the door but the mayor was ahead of him. Nicholas was impatient to get to the yard where Henry was probably already mounting his horse. Family and friends were assembling this afternoon and both would be wanted. It was not reasonable of John to block his way.
‘Do you not heed your own interests in remaining civil? We will need to work together whatever happens in September, and that is not greatly in doubt in my mind, though I imagine you would say the same.’
‘I would say that you do doubt the result, however confident you try to appear. And your doubt is enough to protect me now. So get your foot out of the doorway and let me leave.’
John’s men circled the drama but John gestured for them to pull away. Nicholas saw them forming a huddle in the hall and walked smartly out, gathering his servants in the yard. Henry had waited for him after all and together they moved off towards Chepe.