Nicholas Brembre 42

by socalledstories

Pieryne lost the ring in the latrine. Idonia had given it to her to polish but Pieryne had been seized by an urge too powerful to deny and had rushed to the privy where she tripped over the step and let go of the ring.

The breathless delivery amused Nicholas even more than the story. Pieryne stood as if hung from the neck, although her eyes did not bulge. Instead they studied the floor as they might on Thursdays when it was usually swept.

‘We could drain the privy. It’s close to full. But it is hard to believe that a tiny piece of gold could be found in that much shit. Pieryne could try sieving the top layer.’

Pieryne’s eyes shot up and sideways towards her mistress.

‘That has already been done,’ said Idonia. ‘Nothing was found that had not been through flesh first.’

‘The ring was valuable – enough to set you up for life, Pieryne.’ Nicholas hoped to hold her eyes but they sank to the ground once again. ‘Now you will have to stay with us forever. That is your punishment. Idonia, I will buy you another ring.’

‘No need. I have other rings.’

‘This was a special one.’

‘Then none can replace it. It had its time and its meaning. We have been married for fifteen years and our attachment is not in doubt.’ She gave a dancing gesture of dismissal to Pieryne and sat down on a bench under the window. The early light made and odd colour of her skin.

Nicholas kept to his feet. ‘I am surprised that Pieryne would commit such an obvious deception. I am so surprised in fact that I think her story must be true. Nevertheless, I will keep a watch on her. There is a chance of recovering a piece like that. Not much, I accept, but a greater chance if she has not yet sold it.’

‘Don’t be too determined Nicholas. Remember your first claim was of her innocence. I believe her.’

Idonia thought that all people had an ounce of gold in them that was the touch of God. Whatever stories he brought back from the courts or even from his own business she always smoothed over with her righteous hands until their villains smartened up and went quietly on their way. In her own sphere she showed only occasional respect for the severities of city convention. She was indulgent with Robert far beyond the point where Nicholas wanted to give him away to strangers, and yet their son seemed no worse than any other children he observed. She was polite to traders who were trying to cheat her, but she never lost a penny to them. And she treated her own servants as if they were people equal in significance to herself, albeit she ensured that each attended to the job they were given by God.

She had recently produced a new maid, a replacement for Agnes, but with even less account of her origin than had been given of her forebear’s fate. It was Idonia’s job to manage her maids, but this one looked odd. If you passed her quietly she seemed to be giving the attention of a saint to whatever she was cleaning. But if you tried to talk to her she dropped everything she was holding and burst into tears. Idonia said she was training her and that she would improve. She paused for a response from her husband, but he had none to offer and her expression signalled a triumph that made no sense.

Idonia was a woman and so lived her life close to others. And men? He, as a man, worked for women and children and servants, providing what they needed to sustain their bodies. But the work came between him and them. Idonia lived close to Robert and to her sisters and their children. That was right for a woman. He was thankful to God he didn’t have to do that, to be so close. He was thankful he was a man. If men and women were so different in their purposes why was it they could speak together, live together, and like each other so well? But then fight like Greek gods a few hours later?

Nicholas wanted to believe in the stupidity of women but his honesty would not allow it: there were too many stupid men to ignore. Idonia was not stupid, although she often seemed unsure of it herself. Nicholas was surprised to be thinking about her in this way. It did not seem worthwhile. He cleared his eyes and looked at her. A small woman with fair hair that had once been bright blond. Fifteen years in a wimple had dulled it into silken streams. Her face was worn, the cheeks had fallen, but there was still life in the eyes. How did she feed the light behind them? He put his hands to his own face as if the answer might be found in reflection. But he doubted there was any illumination among the morning spikes.

As he aged Nicholas saw that women varied in ways other than whether you wanted to look at them twice. They were all shapes and sizes for a start. Even the sisters were different. They increased in height in order of age. Joan was a head taller than Idonia. Margery was twice as wide as Margaret. Idonia and Joan were coloured for their mother, while Margery and Margaret had John Stodeye’s thick dark hair and brown eyes. Who noticed the colour of eyes? The brown was an assumption. Some men wanted blond wives but it seemed a trivial choice. He might have married any of them, although Joan was unlikely as the wait would have been too long. What if he had not married until now? That Thomasine was his first child? He was nearer of an age to die than to become a father. The business of children filled your life even if you were a man. The house was never still since either the children or their mother or the servants were rushing around. And they were such frightening things, like dragons made of paper. They frightened you with their noise and they frightened you with their stillness. In a moment they went to pulp or tore in half. We needed women to produce these feeble monsters but would it be better without them?

It was the feast of the exaltation of the cross and the September sun had slipped lower than the stubborn heat suggested. The tenements of London were hit at a new slant, smashing through windows and tickling spiders under the penthouses. Early in the morning, but not so early as it had been, Nicholas felt a fey chill as he stood to watch the sun rise over Cornhill. But by the time he had settled the matter of the ring and found Ralf and Guy, the temperature and humidity had both risen and he feared a deluge.

The rain, when it came, was so thick it hardly seemed to fall. Nicholas expected it to resist his advance like rock. But he would not wait and it did yield. The meeting point was in the grounds of St Paul’s. They would have to go inside if anything sensible were to be discussed, otherwise they would dissolve and run with the rain down the gutters. Guy and Ralf were sent off in opposite directions to be busy out of earshot.

The cathedral could be determined as a slightly darker mass than the water surrounding it. As the rain eased a little and some light broke through, the stones in the yard and the sides of the cathedral began to assert themselves with a shimmer. He wondered at the speed with which people sprung up from the earth once the rain had disappeared into it and left it soft. Sometimes on feast days there was singing in the grounds of the cathedral, as in other churchyards across the city. A group had formed under some trees and stepped forward as the rain ceased: men and women together and some children. He did not know how they had begun but they went on very well. They sang songs he had known since childhood and, while most had become familiar to him in their London forms, once in a while an old Norfolk variation would float up like a phantom and he would find himself at odds with the city. He did not want to sing himself, but the music blew into his lungs and cleaned them out. They took some care to sing together and yet were not defeated when they stumbled and fell into laughter. Broken into shards, the song became light and bounced among the branches. To be a singer in a troupe would be the meanest thing in the world and yet the richest.

Children were playing around the cathedral, chasing over and around the stones. Their voices came from another world, the notes of their music skipping blithely in a higher pitch and dropping only occasionally for a scold or a tease before rising again in a wail. If they were hungry they had forgotten it and they could not feel beyond the immediate gap to the long aching anxiety of their parents to produce the food that sustained their din.

In another corner three men were in dispute. They appeared to be tailors and they drew garments in the air like the best of mimes, stabbing at the point of disagreement with needles sharper and fiercer than dragons’ claws.

Further on a group of women gave encouragement to the heroic figure of a widow, who, along with her servant, was washing the stone window to what God had left of her husband. She was tall and broad-shouldered but however hard she worked she could not see through.

As Nicholas neared, the women dropped the ends of their sentences like cotton unravelling from reels. One or two of them were known to Idonia, he thought, but Idonia did not came to churches in order to meet friends. As he passed the cotton reels were rewound and the chatter resumed. He did not strain to hear what was said, but the tone was more suggestive of jewels, gowns and love affairs than grief, widowhood and the perils of the soul.

He could not see Thomas, though he knew him to be adept at disappearing into the shadow of a statue or a tree. Nicholas, tired of wandering, was forced to pretend interest in the south east armpit of the cathedral.

Inevitably Thomas Wailand stepped out from behind a buttress: ‘I thought you might choose a dark damp corner of the yard when you might be comfortable inside.’

‘You think I want to muddle my head with religion when I am talking business? Maybe that is what you would like.’

‘Me? No. I am your ally. I have no wish to put you at a disadvantage. Nor has religion ever stopped men from talking business in church in my experience.’

‘True. And how is God treating you today, since it will doubtless be better than he treats a blasphemer like me?’

‘Well enough, and one of the blessings I have from him – although that is also a sinful matter – will be joining us, if you permit. But for the moment I have information about the doings of the drapers.’

‘Of which you are one, and perhaps the most devious.’

‘They are meeting in the goldsmiths’ hall tonight, along with other friends of the mayor.’

‘Will you tell me what happens?’

‘No, I have better ways of spending my time, particularly today. Get one of your men to dress up for the occasion.’

‘One of my men is now lacking a leg because he was seen as a threat to the mayor. And that was without provocation, nor any chance, in truth, that he could to be a threat to anybody.’

‘Gombert has made a sacrifice for you. I hope you will repay him.’

‘He’s hardly saved my soul.’

‘We’re back to that. You are particularly gloomy today.’

‘Why pretend? I fear we will both be long dependent on purgatory for any chance of salvation. In my case I fear the dependency will only prolong the agony of faint hope. Why did God create purgatory?’

‘Are you sure it was God?’

‘That must be the reason I like you: you say the most alarming things.’

‘You like me?’


‘Who benefits from purgatory?’

‘Anyone who has not completely gone to the devil.’


Nicholas looked out of his damp corner at the world and began to laugh. A priest was walking away from the cathedral, enjoying the sun on his face. His arms rested smugly on his stomach and his smile cut back through his head like a hinge.

Three women approached. One of them he recognised by the surge in his pipes. ‘These are all three of your…?’ he asked.

Thomas was puzzled for a moment, then smiled. ‘Oh, no. You have met Beatrice. The other two are servants: Amice and Floria. They have come for the festival.’

The servants went into the cathedral but Beatrice waited a while. She was draped in barley and had asters in her hair. She was the fair face of autumn: young flesh tainted by dead flora.

‘Have you finished Bartholomew’s big book of things, De proprietatibus rerum?’

‘Not yet, Sir Nicholas. I have been reading about the senses, colours and sounds.’

‘You are an unusual woman.’

‘In this world that is the only sort of woman to be.’

‘Sir Nicholas will soon be mayor, Beatrice. Have you any words of advice for him?’

‘Do not be afraid of men,’ said Beatrice through a slow grin. ‘They are corn dollies such as these. They look spiky but they are unable to inflict real harm.’

‘Gombert would not agree.’

‘Gombert has that right, whoever he is. But you, Sir Nicholas, can manage men, though you have less knowledge of them that I do.’

‘You may have forgotten that I am a man myself.’

‘That is why you could profit from my guidance.’

‘Go and join the celebrations, Beatrice.’ Her patron watched the weave of her body against the cold hard line of the cathedral. His friend watched too. ‘You asked me once why I keep three whores and do not marry. You can surely see the merit in keeping a woman like that.’

‘You could marry her.’

‘You know that is not true. And what would it do to her in any case? The wonder of her would soon be lost.’

How would a man not look at a woman? Yes, he could pluck out his eye. No, of course he would not do so. How would that happen? How would it even be possible? But God expects us to expect more of ourselves. We should not be proud of ourselves because we have forced our limbs to move correctly. We are capable of more than this and we should not be satisfied until our minds are like stones fallen to the bottom of a river and no longer moved by the currents that pass over them. But was he any nearer to being such a stone than he was when he was young and quick?

Nicholas strode home to look for Jankin, who reported on progress ahead of the election. The report was good. Jankin rehearsed the success of the duel approach. Bounty had been placed where it would provide return. Any businessman would judge this sound. Elsewhere encouragement came in the form of prediction. Nicholas did not need to know what in particular had been predicted. The point was not to create trouble but to prevent it. If consequences were not understood people were left at a disadvantage. The tradition of prediction was an ancient and noble one, which had contributed much to the running of the affairs of the world.

Nicholas considered his agent. Jankin was standing like a man who had been wading through a bog and was now drying himself in the sun. All his surfaces appeared to be exposed to the heat. Nicholas found this chilling by contrast. Arguments lost their comfort when overstated.

‘And the day itself?’

‘We have the support of twenty men who are very enthusiastic about your election. They can’t vote themselves, but they are willing to assist those that can.’

How would the world be if everything happened as it should without encouragement? Suppose everyone understood who was the best leader, regardless of their personal interests. Suppose only worthy candidates attained office. There would be no need of arguments in airless rooms, of sharp words after dark, or payments that could not be accounted for. Would he prefer such a world? The question was largely idle but he sensed from deep within a more significant revolt. A world that was all good would not be his world and he would not be able to make his mark on it.

‘Jankin, I want you to find your friend the red-haired skinner and encourage him to attend a meeting tonight at the goldsmiths’ hall. I want to know everything.’

John Philipot was waiting for him in the garden where he had been sitting with Idonia. He smiled at her as she rose to go indoors but his cheer disappeared as she did.

‘I am worried, Nicholas, about what we are doing.’

‘Are you worried that we will not win?’

‘Yes, but not so much as that we might win by the wrong means.’

‘Did I not hear you in this very house urge revenge regardless of the means?’

‘You did. But those words were spoken in pain and may have stretched my sense a little.’

‘You don’t have to worry. You are the hero of the city, of the country. You bring us half the support we need. You need do no more. I will bring the rest.’

‘Nichol, you are a cleverer man than I. I see a cause and I jump after it. I don’t stop to think. But you plan and calculate, you make sure it happens. Whatever has to be done is done.’ John placed a hand on his brother’s shoulder. ‘That is my worry.’

‘John! Have you never beaten one apprentice to scare them all, though you did not know which had broken the pot?’

John was looking back at him with that expression on his face. Nichol’s ribs contracted as he pushed out a sigh. Why was it that when God decided to plant a saint in this mouldy earth, it had to be right here in his garden?’

‘Nothing is all good in this world. In fact, all is sinful. We know that. We await perfection in heaven. Here we do our best and admit our shortcomings. God forgives us, or otherwise, in the end.’

‘Then let me pray for you, Nicholas.’