Nicholas Brembre 41
The market place was still busy, although some traders were already packing up unsold items. It was easy to find what you wanted on Chepe: goods were grouped in customary areas, often close to the intersecting streets that bore their tag. Bread, iron and wood were examples on Chepe, while beyond the conduit the thoroughfare itself was named for the fowl that were sold there. The party wandered in the wide space, stretching its sight east to Poultry, west to the sharp mass of St Paul’s, then settling it lightly on the shops and stalls that filled the space between. There was a purpose to their dallying but Nicholas became impatient of it: ‘Where’s Gombert? How long does it take to run to Creed Lane and back? I suppose you have to remember that he is the stupidest man in Christendom and so may have forgotten that he knows the way. There is a place in the world for such people. You can lay them before doors to block the draft, or poke them to test how sharp your sword is. But there’s no point in asking them to do anything that requires the slightest activity of the brain.’
Henry Vanner conjured a laugh. It was unpromising in its beginning but caught up in a sudden flurry of his features. ‘I have a couple of those myself. Nothing much to be done. Are they worth the food we shovel into them, you have to ask?’
‘If Gombert loses that letter I will consider I have the answer on that one,’ said Nicholas with a butcher’s cool. ‘Henry, we have business.’
‘The main business: politics.’
‘I may be able to help you, Nicholas, but maybe not. I am thinking about what I want to do.’
‘I can tell you what to do.’
‘I don’t know that I want to be an alderman any more.’
‘I dreamed that this was so. All around me the world was collapsing: lightening strikes, buildings crashing down in flames, children screaming, and there in the middle of it stands Henry Vanner wondering if he wants to be an alderman.’
‘It’s a good question. Why would anyone really want to be one? Thomas Wailand paid for half of the windows in Guildhall to be renewed rather than take office. Many others have sought discharge through donation. Few see it as you do. My business, my real business, is ailing and I need more time for it.’
‘Well, Henry Vanner, you can have your time after the election, so long as you aid me now. Don’t speak of real business as if there is no money to be lost or gained at the Guildhall. If your business fails it is because of what John de Northampton does as mayor – with or without the backing of the duke of Lancaster. You and I may not want the trouble and expense of office, but we pay a greater price if we flee from it.’
Henry looked a little surly. The silly hair was skewed by sweat and the bottom lip had reddened and inflated. Beetroot was rampant this year and it seemed that the colour of this appalling vegetable had risen from the ground and filled his face. Who had spoken to him?
They left Guy to wait for Gombert by Queen Eleanor’s cross and proceeded to La Riole. John Philipot was striding around the yard with Robert skipping behind him, but there was disappointment for the little nephew as his uncle hurried back into the house.
William Walworth was already in the hall with Idonia and sisters Margery and Margaret. ‘How was the congregation?’ he asked.
‘That man is intolerable,’ said Henry in the midst of greeting the company. ‘It is not just what he says but how he says it,’
‘He will be gone soon – one way or another. Nicholas will oust him by fair means or foul.’ John’s response was keener and harder than he usually allowed. Although there was no doubt of his caring about a throng of things, it was characteristic of him to dull down what others sought to gild.
‘I am surprised to hear you suggest impropriety, John,’ said William.
‘Through desperation alone. The end is essential, so the means must fall in with it.’
‘I am happy to put in the work, however grisly it may be,’ cracked Nicholas. He still felt light in the head but his chest held a point of pressure like a hot stone, as if all his being were contained in it.
‘Over many years I have given freely of my blood and gold to this city and in return I have been flung from the Guildhall onto my stomach. Perhaps if that wretched organ did not hurt as much as it does today, I would be able to swallow my desire for a bloody revenge.’
‘These words from the mouth of John Philipot!’ exclaimed William. ‘What do you think, Margaret?’
‘I think neither John nor Nicholas mean what they choose to say.’
‘I think both are good men who want to do God’s work.’
‘King and city have no more loyal servants.’
‘So now you accuse us of loyalty to the king!’ laughed John. ‘I think Nicholas, in particular, should defend himself.’
‘That’s easy enough. The merchant makes more money in an orderly city and he makes more money in an orderly kingdom. The first requires a mayor, the second a king.’
‘So, you have no personal loyalty to the king?’
‘The king has been happy to allow us to export our wool and reclaim loans through the customs. My heart beats proudly in response to that.’
‘Oh Nichol, I think there is more to it than that. I know you have had secret fondness for him since the revolt. I know also that the monarch, whoever he may be, is as crucial to the lives of merchants since his decisions affect the chances of everyone in the land.’
‘The king is our protector,’ said Margaret. ‘So far as he is able. And he is a handsome young man, who has brought life and beauty to Westminster after the gloomy days of his grandfather.’
‘We would not have justice without him, whatever his nature,’ said Margery.
‘The king and queen are a model of how a noble couple should be,’ said Joan.
‘Meanwhile, wool exports continue to decline,’ said John Fresshe,
‘Not for me,’ said Hugh Fastolf.
‘Are you sure?’
‘I keep records. One year may be up, another down a little, but overall…’
‘One man is not the measure of all,’ said John Philipot. ‘What account is there for all of us?’
‘There isn’t one – at least not the in the city.’
‘The customs would tell the story up to a point; but you would need to recover a few years’ worth.’
‘There’s a dry job for someone. Nicholas, you like rummaging around in the records.’
‘I have noticed a decline,’ said Henry.
‘Of course there is a decline,’ said Nicholas.
‘Should we worry?’ laughed Margaret.
‘Will it help to talk about it now?’ hissed Margery.
‘Will we be poor?’ whined Joan.
‘Would we notice if our wealth shrank a little?’ posed Idonia. ‘Or even a lot?’.
‘Look what has happened to the fishmongers,’ whispered Joan close to her ear. ‘You said that Sir William was eating with bent spoons.’
‘They worked just as well.’
‘The staple is the cause,’ said John Fresshe. ‘The staple makes a few men rich but excludes others and it encourages home production of cloth. Englishmen can buy wool without paying the king’s duties, which we – or our alien customers – must pay in full.’
‘If we can’t think of a dodge,’ added Hugh.
‘Why should there not be cloth made in England?’ asked Margery. ‘It sounds like good work for people fed up with the fields.’
‘No reason – other than our own business may shrink and fail as a result.’
‘Well you all make money from other things – the trades you claim to follow: grocer, vintner, mercer.’
‘Not as much as from exporting wool.’
In the silence which greeted this great truth, Agnes rustled out from behind the screen, seeking the attention of her mistress but gaining it from the whole hall. Even William raised his eyes. She hovered there for a moment and then approached to whisper in Idonia’s ear. The bend of her body was so urgent and fine a piece that Nicholas became frightened by his devotion.
‘Silly girl! Why worry over Gombert? He’ll be back before we want him.’
‘No. Sir Nicholas, excuse me. A man has come to say that Gombert is lying in an alley all beaten up. Guy and Peter have gone to get him.’
‘Bring in the man.’
A curly-head with a bright face entered the hall. ‘I am Henry Londone, servant to Richard Whittington.’
‘What did you see?’
‘Please God, I saw a fight in Watling Street, near All Hallows. I didn’t make it out to start with, but then I saw they were all onto one man. They whacked him and dragged him into an alley. When I got level with the alley I saw that they had left him there in a heap. If I hadn’t seen the fight I’d have thought there to be nothing but a bag of rubbish.’
‘Maybe you were little more accurate in your attentiveness.’
Curly-head paused but was not put off. ‘I knelt down beside him but he was too bad to bring to his feet.’
‘Did you know the other players in this drama?’
‘No, Sir William. But one of them had a burnt hand. There was little else to distinguish them since they all had hoods.’
‘Thank you. Take this for your trouble and tell your young master to come to me if he doubts your tale.’ Nicholas watched the bold swing of cloth as Henry Londone left the hall. Clearly he had no fears that Richard would suspect him for his absence. The ways of the new generation are slack and strange and the world becomes harder to understand.
‘I think I know this man with the burnt hand,’ said William.
‘Richard Chase,’ agreed Henry. ‘He made a bet that he could hold his hand over a flame longer than the other man could hold his breath. He won the bet.’
‘A man of will!’ Nicholas exclaimed. ‘When God made this man he put so much matter in his balls, there was none left for his brains!’
Margery looked across at Margaret and both pursed their lips a little too hard.
‘And whose man is this Richard Chase?’
‘He is a servant of John More.’
‘This is no chance then?’
‘By God, Henry, you draw a swift conclusion!’
‘Nicholas. Let us consider our response. The mayor cannot assault you in Guildhall so he sends his supporters to beat your servant instead. You must be careful – so must we all!’
‘We should bring an action against this man with the burnt hand,’ insisted Henry.
They could hear from the hall that Gombert had returned. His screams near shattered the glass in the high windows. Idonia covered her face with both hands, as if to suppress a cry of her own. Pieryne, who had been sitting on a bench against the wall, rushed forward. Idonia took her arm and they made sore steps towards the main door.
The other sisters and the men remained in the vast room, watching the angry flash and break of the flames in the centre hearth while attempting deafness. Gradually the screams faded and the eyes in the hall followed the smoke up to the the hole in the roof.
‘How do we proceed?’
‘We have the name of one of the assailants.’
‘Whom should we trust with that name, Henry? The sheriffs?’
‘The wardmoot could handle it. It all occurred in Bread Street, which is your ward, Nicholas. Who is the beadle?’
‘It will not succeed, however we pursue it – not on its own merits in any case. It is a small event, a leaf on a tree, a footprint in the swamp. We waste our efforts on this, unless it contributes to the whole campaign.’
Two more screams, like swords thrusts, penetrated the refuge.
Nicholas stepped down to the buttery where Gombert was laid out on the straw. The bone-setter was fussing at his feet. Gombert’s eyes were straining like eggs trying to leave a hen’s arse. Agnes had a cold cloth clamped to his forehead and was whispering to him. His face was bloodless but there was plenty of red stuff flowing at the other end. It was the left leg that was the problem: it was too short – no, it was caught at an odd angle. Finally Nicholas saw the white end of bone sticking through the skin. It seemed the bone-setter had not yet earned her title. She peered at the errant leg from every possible direction and put her fingers to its shape, thereby producing deep distress at the other end. At last she settled her grip on either side of the break and pushed down suddenly with elbows locked. Half-dead though he was, Gombert made a noise like two armies colliding. Agnes stuffed the cloth into his mouth and held his head against her bosom, a gesture which Gombert seemed unable to appreciate, but which had some effect on Nicholas.
Idonia was calmest of all the party. She brought water for Gombert and waited until he was able to drink. She held his hand, a moment of skin meeting skin that neither would have expected in a lifetime. Gombert stopped gulping for air and his breathing slowed back to the rate of a dying man. The leg was now at a different angle but was still not as God intended. More blood was soaking into the straw.
The bone-setter looked up at Nicholas and said: ‘I suggest you fetch a barber.’
‘Please Sir Nicholas, will you listen to me for a moment?’
Nicholas looked up from his accounts. He had been thinking of olive groves and lemon trees, spices from the east and scalding suns. Out of this haze stepped Agnes, hands and face glowing at the extremities like exotic fruit.
‘Nearer.’ His gesture was too keen and Agnes held back.
‘You are going to get rid of Gombert.’ Now that she had stated her business she was ready to approach.
‘He’s no use to me. Never was.’
‘If he was never any use, why keep him then and throw him out now?’
‘You are very clever, Agnes. Born in a different body, of a different body, you might have been a priest, or a knight, or a merchant maybe. Born as you are, your wit is wasted. But not all is lost: God has given you other blessings.’
‘I know what they are. But can they offer any hope to Gombert?’
‘Why this crusade for Gombert? He’s never attracted such devotion before.’
‘Your eyes are raised to great heights, Sir Nicholas. You spend little time on the ground. You do not know what we are like when we are not bowing and sweeping.’
‘You want to tempt me with tales of Gombert beyond the broom?’
‘Gombert is a kind man, Sir Nicholas. That may be boring, but I find it comforting to be bored. In my life there has been too much excitement, too much taking and giving, mostly from men.’
‘But now, in order to rescue Gombert for the sake of the tedium, you are prepared to endure something of interest.’
Agnes was now at arm’s length. The left sleeve was ruffled up revealing the swell of the wrist. Warm air from across the Mediterranean swirled around her, tanning her skin, then sweeping across the gap to catch him in the sirocco.
‘Are you not a little in danger of hypocrisy, young Agnes? You offer as a matter of virtue that which sometime since you appeared to seek for personal gain.’
He reached across the sea and touched the source of the sirocco. She allowed him hand and wrist, allowed him to push up inside the sleeve, but the softness of her skin grated and he withdrew.
‘This is the great hall of my house. It is a place of work, of worship and of social gatherings. Nothing is hidden here; all is exposed. If I speak here to Gombert and tell him he must go, then all in the household will know as soon as he. If I keep him, I may make that choice in a quieter place, where there will be no unnecessary witness to my deliberations.’
Over the course of a week Agnes appeared in more quiet corners of the house than was geometrically plausible. Yet Nicholas passed her by, putting off the calculation of Gombert’s worth. He knew the worth of Agnes, or could guess it, but he did not want to tie the searing mystery of pleasure’s pith to the slow-burning reckoning of a cripple’s life. There were two questions here of some importance, but they did not go well together.
Then she was gone. He did not understand at once. Maybe she had dusted the quiet corners beyond justification. Maybe she had been ignored sufficiently to prompt the same tactics in return. Maybe she had given up on saving Gombert and was consumed by despair or the next cause.
‘I sent her away,’ said Idonia when he asked.
He did not like her expression, which was too full of matter. ‘You think…’ he blurred into mock laughter.
‘She was not where I needed her. I have chosen someone else.’
Ice in his braes, that he had missed his chance to feel the heat of this fabulous animal. A shock of imagination rushed out into the street as if it might be possible to find her and reclaim his advantage. But instead he thawed to find that he was still in the solar with his wife. Familiarity has a force of its own so terrifying that it can dull more brilliant disappointment.