Nicholas Brembre 46

by socalledstories

On the day after the procession Nicholas sat down in the garden and thought about Beatrice. He did not start with Beatrice. He started with Arthur because in the cold early morning he had been looking at the tapestries in the hall with their beautiful dyes and designs. Arthur was a knight, a king of knights and he upheld the goal of chivalry, which was…what? Death, victory, the holy land? No, the goal of chivalry was women. Then he thought about Beatrice. Was it chivalry that caused Thomas Wailand to keep her? If so it was not the chivalry of Arthur – it was some other idea. Knights died for their ladies but their ladies were supposed to be pure and the knights rapacious with frustration. Thomas was calm as a monk because he certainly was not one, and his demeanour declared his success. Was it better to finger the hem of the garment you would like to tear or to sit down and talk about the practicalities of your satisfaction?

He could hear someone in the yard. He walked round from the garden to see that Peter was checking the gate and the contents of the yard.

‘I want to do a tour of the city today.’ After a gap of silence, Nicholas lifted his eyes to see the weirdness of this statement in Peter’s frozen face. ‘A quiet one this time. I want to check on everything before I get amerced in the new job.’

They visited the warehouses and the customs house, various traders, including aliens, with whom he did business and then headed over to Southwark and the Bridge House, where the wardens offered wine and disturbed the calm luxury of the room by looking pleased as idiots.

Peter asked about dead Adam’s mother but Nicholas shook his head. ‘There have been no problems with the delivery of the money?’

‘No, Sir Nicholas.’

‘She can manage without us today.’

They returned by way of Saint Antonin’s where Nicholas gave thanks to his creator and then crept out into the churchyard to speak of his victory to those small people who had not yet heard of it.

‘Nicholas! This is a lucky meeting. I caught you in the corner of my eye. There is a disturbance at the Guildhall.’ It was Hugh Fastolf, looking irrationally cheerful usual.

‘What has happened?’

‘I couldn’t see. But two of the serjeants ran out of the Guildhall and down Saint Lawrence Lane. I’m sure they went towards Ludgate. I believe they were chasing your opponents. There have been covins forming against your election. They think they can win back the Guildhall by force. These people are ridiculous. Do something about them, Nicholas, before the world becomes a dance of clowns.’

The grin was still large on Hugh’s face. Nicholas found he had to smile in imitation, as if he too might enjoy a fight over what had already been justly won. He sent Peter to pick up Jankin and anyone else he could find. Then he went straight to the Guildhall, where he found that Jankin, as usual, had heard everything before him.

Three of the remaining serjeants were standing at the door blowing hisses. Their brows were low and their shoulders high.

‘The chamberlain has been attacked,’ said the first serjeant as Nicholas approached.

‘By the mayor,’ said the second.

‘By the previous mayor,’ corrected the third.

‘John de Northampton attacked Richard Odyham? An odd thing to do. They never favoured one another, and John always pushed Thomas Usk between them, but I would not have guessed it would come to violence.’

‘We heard shouting. The chamberlain was on the floor in the chamber and the mayor – former mayor – walked out past us.’

‘You didn’t stop him?’

‘We were worried about the chamberlain.’

‘How is he?’

‘Badly hurt. His arm and head are injured – but whether by the assault or the fall we don’t know. The chamberlain wasn’t able to tell us.’

‘Where is he?’

‘He is in the officers’ room. A physician has arrived from Saint Bartholomew’s.’

Nicholas went to see Richard Odyham. He wanted to ask about John de Northampton but was deterred by the sight of his victim, by his pallor and rolling eyes. ‘Do you want to go home?’

‘He should not move,’ said the physician.

‘The mayor hit me. The result of the election cannot be changed.’

‘Do you require assistance?’ the mayor asked the physician. ‘Jankin, find something in the way of bedding to make the chamberlain more comfortable. Take him home later if he improves – or bring him to La Riole.’

Nicholas wanted to follow his rival, but it must be too late to catch him. There was nothing to do now but wait from the serjeants who had been closer behind him.

‘What’s going on, Jankin?’

‘I hear, Sir Nicholas, that John de Northampton thinks the duke of Lancaster can persuade the king to overturn the result of the election.’

Nicholas stopped still for a moment and then smiled. ‘I would like to be a spider suspended above that encounter – either of them in fact, although I doubt the likelihood of the second. You are not worried, Jankin?’

Jankin stood in silence. His arms hung like pump handles, stiff and thin, waiting to be engaged. His mouth was holding back the water.


‘No, Sir Nicholas, I am not worried that the election will be overturned.’

‘You look worried about something. You think more Flemish heads will hit the streets?’

‘When his first ploy fails, he will try others, perhaps more desperate.’

‘Perhaps. Make sure you know what they are.’

‘Yes, Sir Nicholas.’ Jankin’s arms were pumping now but they were not restoring any colour to his face. Poor Jankin fell short of his ambitions: he could not hate the world enough to wish himself and others out of it. He still feared what might happen outside his scheming when the actors became flesh.

Whatever John de Northampton was brewing it was not another peasants’ revolt. Peasants had no interest in him, nor did the city labourers who joined the insurrection when it arrived in London. Those small masters and artisans who favoured the Northampton regime would find it hard to cover the whole city with disorder. And what reward would they get for it? Still, any disturbance was a nuisance because as mayor he would have to deal with it. The best plan might well be to ignore it, but it would be difficult to do so, because the watchers and commentators would accuse him of negligence. He was not so free to make up his mind as he had been a week ago.

There was music at the house of John Philipot. Fiddle, pipe and drums were racketing through the timbers, shaking out the spiders and setting the dogs to howling. Then the fiddle played alone. The sweet roughness of the tone alarmed Nichol’s ear. The theme was serpentine, weaving and squirming, pitching and turning, and when you thought you had it by the tail, it bit you from behind. Nicholas was very taken with it. He threw money at the fiddler’s feet.

John Philipot’s daughter danced in the light under the window. John moved to her side and suddenly he seemed like an old man. The girl twisted to the music like contorted hazel but John was stiff as a stump. He was very pleased with his daughter, although she was not his daughter, and offered her his hand as she performed a dance of smiles. But he could not match her dizzy twitter and he leaned against the window frame each time she slipped his hand. Henry Vanner was dancing with Margery around the fire. Her laughter was stretched thin in its circle like a spring beyond tolerance. Henry swung on. Other dancers passed in front and behind cutting him into pieces that flared for a moment and then went dark. The music was slowing, disentangling its chords towards a harmonious end. Nicholas looked around to see who had noticed. Not Henry, still at full speed with Margery partially attached. Not John or the girl, who were congratulating each other on her accomplishments. Elsewhere family and guests were involved in yet more performance, but no-one was in time with the music.

Sitting alone in a corner, Idonia was thinking hard, or perhaps had fallen asleep. Nicholas sat down beside her and she opened her eyes.

‘Were you listening to the music?’

‘I was thinking of Saint Thomas.’

‘Well, of course. We prayed for him, as you know, at his church on the evening of the feast – as well as for Saint Paul, since they are the patron saints of London.’

‘I was not thinking of Thomas of Canterbury but of Thomas Aquinas. He was a great saint too, though he was not martyred.’

‘You prefer the bloody route to canonisation?’

‘It was God’s way for the early saints.’

‘But you are prepared to honour Thomas though he did not die on a grid or a wheel?’

‘Saint Thomas has a beautiful vision of the world and how it matches with God. When you read to me of his ideas, I want to smile and dance because God is so good and knowable and everything makes sense. Even when that fades in the night I cling to the idea that we can understand God’s purpose through reason and, because we are a part of it, we can know what to do to please him.’

‘So is it reason that will save us?’

‘That is what Saint Thomas seems to say.’

‘And do you think you can reason as well as he? A man who spent every minute of his life in libraries studying and thinking, or discoursing with scholars; who was blessed with the best mind of his generation?’

‘No, Nichol.’

Nicholas saw that she was ruffled and he felt both gratified and disappointed.

‘My powers of reason have always been slight, but they are enough to see the possibility of what I fail to achieve myself. Don’t mock me for that, Nicholas.’

Idonia Birlingham looked set to be betrothed to the son of Walter Doget. John Philipot was not her father but he stood in that place. He wanted to know that she was settled on this arrangement. ‘If you had a daughter, Nichol, how would you speak to her of such a thing?’

Nicholas felt the width of his chest as it expanded and then relaxed. He breathed the air of the city and all who followed its practices and knew how to behave as a result. On the whole girls married the men chosen for them. But marriage, besides being sacred, was a legal affair, which began with the free consent of the parties, however that was conceived. ‘Does Margaret want this marriage?’

‘She is very hopeful of it, perhaps a little too much so.’

‘Do you want it?’

‘On behalf of John Birlingham, I could not object to such a young man.’

‘There seems nothing more to say.’

‘Idonia must say something. I have a chance to make her think hard about her future as none of us really did when we were young.’

‘I thought hard about my future, but that made it even less likely that I would hesitate when my opportunity came. If I had not taken it I would be regretting it even now.’

‘All has turned out well between you and your Idonia. But my Idonia is not guaranteed happiness merely through your example.’

John spoke of happiness but what did that mean? There was indulgence here, if not complete nonsense. The aims of life were dictated by God and the circumstances in which he had dropped you. The necessity was to survive and to make what you could with whatever energy was left to you. Happiness appeared unexpectedly and disappeared the same way. There was no contriving it.

But that name, Idonia – it jiggled the bones a little and demanded consideration. And then there was Alice. What would he have done for Alice? Could he have given her away to another man, however worthy he might be?

The name Idonia had been given to the girl because her aunt was also her godmother. Perhaps Idonia should chose the husband for Idonia. That would be very odd. But not that odd really. If you looked closely enough you would see that not all decisions were made in the expected fashion by the people who were entitled to do so. Some men ruled their houses as God said they should, but they could not cover everything all of the time. Others seemed from the start to order whatever suited their wives – or their children, or even their servants. Some took the views of all comers into consideration, even the rats under the floor, and ended up with a kind of stew of slops. Undoubtedly the first method was the clearest and the strongest. But knowledge of what was best did not prevent women from finding their way around it.

‘Where is all your money, Nicholas?’ asked John as if he were a covetous nephew.

‘My money is in credit, in tolls, taxes, loans, often in bricks or stone, or it is cutting across the sea. Same for you, no doubt.’

‘Why do we have so much?’ asked John Philipot.

What a strange question. And that word we – it can stretch across the world, up to heaven, down to hell, or shrink back to just you and me. Nicholas rolled his eyes but stilled his tongue.

‘We keep making more money, buying more things. I have all these farms in Surrey and Kent. I don’t know what to do with them.’

‘They bring you income.’

‘I want to sell them.’

‘Who will you find with coin enough to buy them? There is no coin. Everything is credit these days.’

‘I know. But I feel that my life has become untidy. I would be happy with the house, some cellars and two ships. No more loans. Nothing out in the countryside to manage from the city.’

‘You have tenants and agents.’

‘I know you have these things too, Nicholas, and you sit in your hall happily ticking them off on your lists. You love to be busy with the world, juggling accounts and businesses and cargoes – wool going one way, spices another, wine and furs and whatever else you can get your hands on. You’re off to Middlesex, Kent, Calais, Middelburg, Venice, Rome…’ John had wandered into the distance but there was still enough rope to pull him back.

‘Is it not the essence a merchant and a citizen to do these things? We have our place among the king’s people, though it often goes unnamed. We are the oil that runs between the old estates and keeps them from turning to stone.’

‘What about our place among God’s people?’

‘Are you frightened for your soul? Of all of us you are the most virtuous, the most energetic in the cause of others, the most generous giver of alms.’

‘Will that shrink me to the size of the needle’s eye?’