Nicholas Brembre 48
‘The skinner says, Sir Nicholas, that covins are forming in the city.’ Jankin spoke sideways as he entered the yard. He had been out and about in the night, returning just as the gate was opened for an early visit from John Philipot.
‘Thomas Wailand says so too,’ said Nicholas. ‘As do most other men with eyes and wit. Secrecy does not seem to be their priority – perhaps the opposite is desired.’
The sky was draped in colours that would have given Thomas a seizure had he seen it in cloth: angry, acid salmon and purple like blood welling under the skin. The blue sky between was cold as spite yet yielded gold as the heavenly bodies turned to light the world.
‘The skinner thinks they are planning an uprising. They reckon they can get the middle ranks of the city on their feet against you, Sir Nicholas. My other spies say the same.’ Jankin continued to speak out of the corner of his mouth as if this made him look less suspicious rather than the opposite.
‘The old mayor has imagination but it takes him too far.’ Nicholas switched his sight between the sunrise and his stiff servant. Then he laughed and reached into his purse. ‘Jankin, I want you to go to Old Ford and check on the supplies. Take Aaron and James with you and bring back the items on this list. You can sleep first. I presume sleep is something you need.’
Jankin looked hard at the letters, which revealed their secrets to him by virtue of the teaching of his master. Then he turned and took his strained features away towards the servants’ room.
‘Who is the skinner?’asked John Philipot, stepping ahead into the gloomy hall.
‘The skinner is named Peter Stenby. Do you know him?’
‘I have heard of him. He has sometimes been accused of mixing furs and found himself in prison. I would say he mixes his company as well. He has been in court claiming damages in disputes with doubtful men.’
‘That is why he is useful to me. He knows the parts of the city that even Jankin cannot reach.’
The two men sat across the fire from each other, Nicholas on his wooden chair with its crossed sticks, which became arms or legs according to need, John on a chest carved with lions and sporting gold around its edges.
‘You think that John de Northampton imagines too much, Nichol, but perhaps you do so yourself. Did you imagine that he would nod his head and slide quietly away?’
‘Well you made sure of that suspicion with your words at the Guildhall after the oath.’
‘Did I?’ said Nicholas as mildly as he wished.
‘You were too direct in what you said about him.’
‘I wasn’t direct. Nothing I said could be proved to be critical. I chose words that could go in at least two directions, if not any direction you like.’
‘Nevertheless, what you meant was obvious.’
‘If I had spoken otherwise, if I had thanked God and the king and rejoiced in the last two years of mayoral mischief, then would he have meekly sat and smiled?’
‘You could have stopped with God and the king.’
‘You know that your opinion is more valuable to me than that of any other man.’
‘That’s why you always disagree with me.’
‘That’s right. But you are my brother and you are a great man, far better than me. I consider what you say even if I do not follow it. You are like a lance stuck upright in the ground and I am attached to you by flappy piece of string that can only stretch so far. I can always see you, even if it is from a distance.’
‘I wonder about that, Nichol.’
Despite the attachment that existed between them – even if its range was disputed – John and Nicholas were going in different directions this morning. John was off to Westminster, Nicholas to the Guildhall. Their discussion linked the two places since what was decided in one would surely affect the other. They had desires of one another. The king, through parliament, wanted taxes and loans from the city, the city wanted both freedom and protection from the king. And beyond this they had common concerns such as foreign threats and disorder in the realm.
The city had elected its four excellent representatives to parliament: John Philipot, William Walworth, Henry Vanner and William Baret and Nicholas could be confident of their pursuit of his objectives in the palace. With this to cushion to his rear he rode out with John along Nightrider Street to the junction with Cordwainer, where he turned north to face his first congregation at the Guildhall.
The new mayor addressed the aldermen and the commons: ‘I know I am not the mayor preferred by all of you. I know that there are those of you who desire some other shape for the city, something flatter with wealth and responsibility shared more evenly among citizens. You would like to choose between me and that blazing vision. But if you choose the vision, what you get is collapse. There is an order to things and if you go against it the opposite must be the result. I am the right choice because there is no other.’ He felt youthful as he spoke these words. His shoulders were sprung and his flesh warm with the trust that men would admire his straight stance, his lack of ostentation. He was taking over the city with hands as strong as a bear’s and he felt he had become what he should be. Now must begin the campaign against the work of his predecessor. It was like a foul net that must be picked to pieces.
The petitions before parliament were the first steps in this process and he discussed them now with the common council, or told it about them in any case, since it was too late to change them. The city’s representatives would support the call for the repeal of the statutes against the fishmongers and other victuallers that had been obtained by John de Northampton. At this point in proceedings it sounded as if the doors to the hall had been opened suddenly to a winter wind. The sighing and whooshing ran round the walls and through the benches ruffling the rich cloaks of the citizens. But a winter wind is not like that of spring, it is not a storm of devastation, a shredder of civilisation. The cold was resisted and the body left shivery but intact. In company with the petition regarding the buying and selling of fish, there was a request for a full restoration of the liberties of the city. A small amount of air was puffed around the chamber at that and Nicholas awaited its diffusion before proceeded to the mundane business of the day.
The mayor, aldermen and common councilmen of the city of London sat in the damp atmosphere of the Guildhall and considered the forms and events of their territory: inquests, ordinances, writs from the king, the accounts of the chamberlain and of the wardens of the bridge, the sale of ale, pertinent cases from the courts. While his plan advanced in Westminster, Nicholas had held back in the Guildhall, reserving more radical issues for later congregations. But just as he eased into confidence that the meeting would close without incident, Adam Bamme, goldsmith and ally of John de Northampton, crashed into the chamber and marched on the dais: ‘There is disorder in the city where I understood that there would be peace and order under the new mayor!’
‘Does Adam know nothing of the origins of that disorder?’ asked the accused in response to this sudden and curious complaint.
‘Let us put history aside for a moment. Disorder in any cause is disorder and threatens the safety and profit of the city. How does the mayor propose to deal with it?’
‘I intend to arrest and imprison those who attack the city. The courts will decide their fate. And God.’
‘Well be prepared to act on your intention because there is a riot brewing on Chepe at this very moment.’
Nicholas looked at his serjeants, who leapt up and bumped into each other. ‘Gather as many men as you can and follow me.’
They rushed out of the Guildhall, down Saint Lawrence Lane onto Chepe where both their movement and their understanding was hindered by the market. The riot, when they found it, was in the goldsmiths’ quarter, close to the cathedral. There were artisans and labourers running in all directions but the bulk of the protest was making for St Paul’s. What weapons Nicholas could see were not sophisticated – mostly brooms and sticks of various sizes. But goldsmiths and their assistants employ blades and may carry them on their persons. What was their cause? Would they fight for it? Did they know what is was? And why was it Adam Bamme who came to tell him about it?’
The appearance of the mayor, serjeants and half the common council had an marked effect on the rioters. Most of them dropped their brooms and ran off into the alleys. The rest gathered into the shape of a lozenge, like knights within a cage of shields.
‘As your mayor I call on you to disperse,’ said Nicholas from the height of his horse.
There was no sound but shuffling until a voice from the back made two stabs through the thick air: ‘Whose mayor?’
Nicholas could not tell who had spoken but he could see that the remains of the riot consisted of journeymen, they who were generally discontented and easily set in directions favoured by cleverer men.
‘Go home and get on with your work.’ Nicholas turned his horse away down so that he could watch the final dispersal of the riot without seeming to care. ‘The common council meeting is adjourned.’
When he reached La Riole Nicholas found an important guest waiting for him. Sir Baldwin Raddington had come to discuss matters on behalf of the king, including the return of the royal crown that had been pledged as security for the city’s loan of four thousand marks. Sir Baldwin was a stiff man a great cloak full of fur. He stood respectfully when Idonia crossed the hall but was off-hand with Nicholas and breathed noisily as if irritated. They agreed that the crown would be returned by Richard Odyham on a date which the chamberlain had suggested. A few minor matters were patted along. Nicholas sensed a desire in his visitor to prolong their meeting and indeed to reopen the subject of loans. He had indicated previously that he might make another to the crown in a private capacity but now he felt the urge to play around a little. It was clear that Sir Baldwin preferred not to ask directly even though he must have come with this very intention. His colour ebbed and flowed at the mayor’s sport. A series of equivocations ended with the most ridiculous, as well as the most pertinent, question of all:
‘I presume that his lordship the king is truly needful of this money?’
Sir Baldwin looked aghast. ‘You don’t want to make the loan, Sir Nicholas?’ he asked with colour coming to his face.
‘Yes I do. I am happy to make a loan, but you don’t look as if you’re happy to receive it.’
‘That is not the case at all. I beg your pardon in God’s name. The king would be very grateful for you assistance.’
Baldwin Raddington was a medium man with a superior air. But his alarm at the question warmed his appearance sufficiently for the lender to want to bother with the process. Nicholas had met with the king himself on occasions when loans were offered in the past but it was easier to receive this mouthpiece in his own home, rather than to ride over to Westminster and wait forever in the cold corridors.
Pieryne came in with some pastries and Sir Baldwin seemed to lose the years between childhood and pomposity. He consumed a pastry with care and explored his lips with a pink tongue in case a grain of sugar had been missed. Then he took another.
Nicholas watched in fascination as this man of moment dissolved into his own pleasure. But two pastries seemed to suffice and, once the ceremony had been repeated, the king’s servant thickened back into flesh and the negotiations moved on. The king would write a letter to confirm that Nicholas could recover his loan from the customs.
‘His lordship the king is very grateful,’ Sir Baldwin repeated. The coda felt uncomfortable and Nicholas wondered if he had added of his own volition something that had not come from the king – indeed that the king had said something less respectful and more presumptuous.
Sir Baldwin declined an invitation to dinner but spent so much time explaining to Idonia the urgency of the business that prevented him, that he might as well have stayed. Nicholas watched the fog rise in her eyes, as it did when he attempted similar accounts. By the time Sir Baldwin predicted his acceptance on another occasion her irises were entirely obscured, but she still managed to steer him to the door and aim her platitudes at the right height for his face. Nicholas was confused by the change from sniffer to pleader, gathering something like sincerity as it went. When did Sir Baldwin think the next occasion would be? How many loans was he likely to request?
Once a week Gombert cleaned his master’s sword and made sure it was sharp. It was a reasonable task for anyone who could sit on a bench or lean against a wall and he did it well enough. But when Nicholas had time to spare he cleaned his sword himself so that it sparkled as he swung it back and forth in practice. The balance of a lance was also his study, although there was not space in the yard to imitate a joust. The purpose of a knight was not as clear as it had been in the reign of Arthur. In those days a knight passed the tests of chivalry and rode out to fight the world. Arthur led his knights to Iceland, Ireland, Norway, Denmark and France – and conquered them all. Even the Roman emperor was defeated. The opportunities were there for all. If a knight lived he could return with a reputation and a fortune, if he died the reputation at least. These fabulous men shared with him their title, but Nicholas had had far less chance than they to show that he deserved it.
Idonia watched him sometimes from the doorway. He would rather she went away. It was ridiculous that an old man was pretending to be Sir Kay on a charger. He put down the pointless lance and returned to the sword. There was always reason to be agile with a blade – with that you could defend yourself, your family and sometimes even the king.
‘Are you expecting to fight off your opponents? You would do better to leave that to your servants and make sure you have enough of them.’
‘Nichol, that is not the case…’
‘Are you always watching me? Tell me when I have gone out unprepared.’
‘On the day after the feast you went across the city and into Southwark with Peter alone.’
‘Peter is not the quivering monk we thought him to be. He is quite a force under attack. All my life I thought of him as an imitation of a man with flesh and bone but no fire.’
‘You don’t look very hard, do you, Nichol?’
‘No. But now I see that Peter is the very man to have in case of danger.’
He could see that Idonia was not convinced by this swing from Peter the manikin to Peter the Titan. She looked at him as if he were Robert asking if they might have lion cubs in the garden. ‘Peter is only one man, however great his transformation.’
‘I wanted to be quiet.’
‘Let it be the last time.’
‘Is it for the wife to command the husband?’
‘Illusions of domestic order must sometimes be overcome by necessity. If you are attacked and killed, what will happen to me, to Robert and to the rest of the household? Nichol, you have been in the habit of slipping in and out of the house. Surely you know why, if I don’t. But John de Northampton has shown the viciousness of his intentions on many occasions. Don’t leave us open to them.’
Nicholas was packed up and ready to come back into the house. Gombert was waiting to put the sword away though the lance was too heavy for him. Nicholas brought it in himself. It could be kept only in the store house where there were hooks to hold it against the long wall. He remembered that he had wanted it hung in the hall until he saw how naked would be the perfect tip, no dents, no blood. Its virginity would expose his own in never having tilted it in fear.
‘Will my husband be home for dinner today and is there anything in particular he would like his wife to provide?’ Idonia had slipped quietly from the yard but was waiting for him in the hall. Her question hovered like a bluebottle, its buzz disrupting the distant sounds of battle.
‘Swan,’ he said.
‘Swan? What swan? Where would I get a swan from between now and dinner? And who would eat swan on a Tuesday unless they had invited the king?’
Why did he have to keep needling her? It was not really worth the effort and he could see that she was struggling to understand. Idonia hated to be adrift from sense.
‘We can’t have swan.’
‘We could have had it at the banquet.’
Now she understood, but the relief was not plenary, some other irritation persisted. Her cheeks were no longer sucked up into her eyes but the line of her mouth was hard as a knife. Why this anger in her? Surely her worries were slight compared to those of others. He recalled the sight of the shivering girl under the door in the alley. Idonia did not have to contend with that kind of ruin. She had always had a home and as much food as she wanted. Food was not the issue – accept that now it was the issue.
‘You wanted swan at the feast?’
‘I thought the occasion invited it.’
‘It was too expensive.’
‘I was paying.’
‘You gave the task of arranging the banquet to me and so I decided what to buy. The spread was outrageous even without the swan.’
By now both of them were bubbling like a miss-mixed broth. Nicholas was weary of having to argue his case in his own home and stomped off into the city without sword or companion. There was but one person he wanted as his protector and that person was in not in La Riole.
Sir Nicholas Brembre entered the shop in Coleman Street hoping to be told that he must wait. Thomas Wailand, however, was already on the premises and was soon on his way up from the cellar wiping his hands on a ragged piece of cloth.
‘And what have you come for today, Sir Nicholas?’
The question hung in space as its object shuffled one purpose with another. ‘You were in London at the time of the revolt.’
‘I was in Southwark.’ Thomas pointed to a bench as he threw down the cloth and took off his apron. A servant took charge of both.
‘Good. I hoped that was the case.’
‘You hoped I was there rather than looking after my paying interests in the city?’
‘For present purposes, yes. Did you hear what the rebels said of their chances of crossing the bridge?’
‘You keep coming back to this, Nicholas. Why does it matter so much?’
‘Yesterday I heard a new rumour: that it was me that let them in.’
‘Why would you do that?’
‘Because I am a fiend from hell intent on ruining the world. Because I have a child’s grudge against the city. Because I knew they would attack my enemies – including the duke of Lancaster. Or perhaps because I thought they would do less damage if they were not thwarted at the start.’
‘I heard nothing from them but foul language and farts.’
Nicholas was distracted by a noise above his head and for a moment it was beyond him to fashion a response. Thomas waited and then accepted the duty of resisting the silence: ‘Well, they have got no further with those they accused. I understand they are all released from the tower and not a conviction yet secured.’
‘They are due back at the King’s Bench in November but the case becomes weaker the longer it is stretched. Perhaps that is the reason the rumours have turned on me.’
‘Or merely because it is good sport for your opponents. How did you collect so many?’
‘Do you know what John de Northampton thinks of the case?’
‘Do you mean before or after you took away his toys?’
‘Does no-one have a true opinion, one that is not fixed by by their own desires?’
‘No, probably not – although I like the idea.’
‘I am not really worried, of course,’ said Nicholas, smoothing his sleeves. ‘It is too late for a cooked up charge from men out of power. But I am curious.’
‘Look, even as a draper I am not especially well informed, but I would say John thinks the men who were tried are the men who did it.’
‘What do you think?’
‘I think they are as innocent as anyone else.’
Thomas invited his friend upstairs for a glass of wine but Beatrice was not in the room with the cushions and Nicholas heard no more bumps. Did she know he was there? Had Thomas told her to stay away for some reason? Was she in the house at all?
Nicholas trailed off to the Guildhall with nothing but a knock on the floor to sound his desire. Before he left Coleman Street he sent for Peter, Guy and Milo and as they met him at the door he glanced up at the window of the penthouse and thought he saw a face. Further along the road he turned and looked again but saw only the billowing of a drape.
Cloud sank down around the party and sucked in with them through the Guildhall porch. After an hour Nicholas was soggy with the business of being mayor and took the key to the end of the corridor. But even his beloved parchments were unable to dry him out. He uncoiled a roll at random and slid across its surface. Walram Baker and his wife claimed that aliens were breaking into their messuage and stealing grain. The master of a school in Farringdon was accused of beating a child to death. A woman of noble descent had been keeping a whore house in Lombard Street. This was all too trifling and familiar. He wanted to find the serious strands of history that pulled together the ages of mankind. If not that then something politically useful at least. He was not looking in the right place but had no other idea of where to go. He lingered for a moment in the foggy corner before replacing the roll. What of Walram’s wife? What did she look like? Was she young and ample? How long could you beat a child and be sure it would not come to harm? Which would be the richer life for a noblewoman: sitting silent in stiff fabric for the entertainment of lords, or dancing with sailors and priests?
Nicholas walked out into the yard and looked up into the vapour through the jagged edges of the roofs. Wayward buildings, both inside and outside the precincts, had cut to pieces what should have been a great space for the mustering of the corporation, the misteries and the people of London. The line strutted out then withdrew into the dark, enabling the likes of Hugh Fastolf to emerge from a corner with drips on his boot. Fluid were the possibilities in the angles of the city. But here the tower of Saint Lawrence was always witness.
‘We in the guild of grocers aim at gentility,’ said the mayor.
‘It is good to have targets.’
‘You seem to have missed yours.’
‘Sometimes life demands a speedy response.’
‘You must be one of the richest merchants in London.’
‘After you, Nicholas.’
‘Yet you’re happy to pee into the mist when there is an excellent corporation privy.’
‘God bless you, Nichol; he made us each a little different. Let me follow my path, and you can go on roaming the yard like a corpse searching for its head.’
How could he get hold of Beatrice? Coleman Street was a matter of chance, La Riole an impossibility. Where was she when she was not with Thomas? There must be somewhere she based herself since she was only one of three. He felt he had been hollowed out by worms and filled again with a mad mush that threatened to boil out of his eyes.
‘Do grocers need to meet in shadows even when one of them is mayor?’ Hugh Fastolf had disappeared but Adam Bamme had observed their encounter.
‘Nothing of any importance was discussed.’
‘Of course not. But that is exactly what I would like to discuss with you: nothing of any importance, other than the state of the city.’
Adam began an investigation of the recent riot, but he did not speak in anger or contempt, rather in the tone of a concerned citizen. Nicholas tried to follow his account and his motivation, both together and apart, while his imagination wandered in search of places where he and Beatrice could meet. He had no luck with any of it, and this seemed to be the theme for the day. He was ready to abandon the Guildhall. ‘Come to dinner.’
Nicholas was desperate to eat now that the hour had come. His stomach was a monster fighting to escape its box, spitting out flaming juices and banging against the walls. Swan was no longer necessary – any flesh, fruit or grain would do. He hurried home as the nones bells rang, with Adam Bamme attempting a more dignified pace behind him, and the servants flapping in between. Pork was the main offering today, although several other dishes figured. Idonia sat with her sister Margaret near the end of the table, leaving space for Nicholas and his guest to talk freely. Servants and apprentices took up places further down the board.
As he sat, Adam scanned the hall from the height of its roof to the quantity of precious metal on the oak before him. He was well known to Nicholas but not at this proximity. The red of his face was moderated and his nose shrunk. His eyes were curious but not aggressive. His mouth explored the meal with apparent respect. ‘I was a supporter of the former mayor, but I follow the decision of the city in electing you and I want to prevent unnecessary strife.’
‘A mayor who intends to overturn everything his predecessor did might expect his vassal to object.’
‘I might object to some parts of your programme, ignore others, but above all I want peace.’ Adam reached for a dish of haddock and figs. ‘I am a goldsmith; of course I supported John. The members of my guild gained a number of advantages – of course we did.’
‘So now you expect a number of advantages for supporting me.’
‘The stability of the city?’
‘You did not back me in the election.’
‘No. What is one advantage against many?’
‘Did John offer stability?’
‘That is a good question. Either choice would have led to unrest. But I was resolved to back whoever won in order to overcome these difficulties.’
‘John will not be pleased with you.’
‘No but I will look after myself, if you do not speak my name too loudly.’
‘How is your family, Adam?’ asked Idonia.
‘Mostly well. There are not many to be accounted for. Eleanor, my wife, is full of health and energy. Henry, my brother, not so much so. How is your son? Is he at school?’
‘He learns Latin slowly,’ said Nicholas.
‘He is a good boy who tries hard but is easily tired,’ Idonia expanded. ‘He likes learning as does his father.’
‘Children are a strange gift to us from God. He told us to multiple but it seems hard enough to prevent the shrinking of the population. Do you know, Adam, of many families where the children outnumber the parents at their deaths?’
‘I was one of many children but the plague took all but two. Those of us that are of that age were given a special chance of life before we understood anything about it. We knew more of death.’
‘And do you understand it now?’ asked Margaret.
‘We have tried to recover our numbers, and the opportunities are there for those that remain – people have moved into the city to learn crafts, labourers have won higher wages, those who work the land have the choice of it.’
‘And yet we have no heirs,’ said Adam. ‘Perhaps God is testing us or the plague was meant as a warning that we did not heed.’
‘Many have seen it that way. Look at the flagellants,’ said Margaret.
‘I prefer not to.’
Nicholas had seen flagellants frequently as a child – less often as the plague withdrew and returned in weaker waves. The blood streamed down their backs, while their voices shot up to the sky. It was the wailing that horrified him the most. It would not work. All that pain and performance and God would not answer.
‘If I had time to wander the world, I would find a better way to convince God of my humility,’ said Adam.
The party stood and left the table to its torn plates and splashes of sauce. Nicholas saw his guest out into the yard, with Idonia and Margaret watching from the door. As he returned he remembered something that he had forgotten: ‘What did you do with the girl in the alley?’ he asked Idonia.
‘I found her a position as a maid.’
‘That thing? Truly? How did you manage that?’
‘It was easy enough. She had been a maid before and so had little to learn. It was mainly a matter of cleaning her up and feeding her.’
‘You do know what had befallen her?’
‘I do but there is hardly a memory of it. The child did not live to distract her and no-one would now guess her misfortune.’