Nicholas Brembre 51
Gombert was pushing barrels around the yard. Nicholas watched him in the twilight after Vespers. It was true that he fell over more often might be desired, but otherwise he was surprisingly useful. In some ways he was more useful than he had been when he had both legs. Then he had impressed as dim and little else, but now there was effort attached. He seemed determined to prove his desert of the place that Agnes had won for him. Had he known how she fought for him or why she had lost her own? Where was she now? Did he know that? Nicholas wandered out into the city in search of her but, lost in his imagination, Agnes became Beatrice, as did everything.
Nicholas had bought Gombert a stump. It was made by Pieryne’s father in Wood Street. Pieryne’s father had been keen to take the money, although it was not his usual commission, but he did not mention Pieryne. Nicholas would have made a point of doing so himself had he not remained in such confusion regarding the ring. The stump was a success: Gombert was exceedingly pleased with it. Nicholas had never known someone so pleased with everything when their prospects were so bleak.
Jankin and Milo moved close to Gombert as they unloaded the necessaries of the day. Jankin nodded to him and looked away but Milo asked him shyly about the barrels. Twice as tall as Gombert and with double shanks, he was nevertheless sensitive to issues of age and length of service. Nicholas took this as a good sign. Milo had come to him from the court of orphans. His guardian was John Fresshe, who was aware of the loss at sea and seized the opportunity to place his charge, particularly given the weight of food he consumed. Nicholas accepted that he must take his time teaching Milo. But he was not stupid, just slow.
Pieryne and Juliana were talking in the buttery. Nicholas could hear them from the edge of the hall as he set down papers on his table. Juliana thought that the duke of Lancaster was a handsome man and that his son was even more so. She thought that Bolingbroke would have made a good king, had he been the son of the prince of Wales rather than the king of Spain.
‘Why would he be better than king Richard?’
‘I didn’t say better, but I think he would be more like a proper soldier, as if he could lead the army against France.’
‘I think you like him.’
‘I would like to be his queen,’ laughed Juliana.
‘Queen? That would not be your title!’ punched Pieryne and the laughter ceased.
They were speaking treason in their foolish way and Nicholas stepped forward to tell them so, but waited a moment to hear what else they might have to say.
‘Why do kings follow in families?’
‘So that we know where to look for the next one. They are like horses or sheep bred for their fitness. Same with lords and perhaps with merchants too.’
‘There’s no hope for us then?’
‘No. We were not bred for anything in particular and must be grateful for our keep. No-one has taken much care over our begetting.’
Nicholas returned to his papers.
They ate their evening meal in the solar and Nicholas read to the household from Augustine’s City of God. He ended with a passage chiding those who criticise elements of creation and believe in natural evil. He translated from Latin as he went along. Robert stood by his side and pointed at some of the words that he had learned at school: id, est, ad, hanc, sunt, lux, nihil. He mouthed the strange sounds, becoming more ambitious: mundi originem, causam creationis, bonus Deus. He thrust out his arms and begun stamping around the room but a fit of coughing took him back to his mother. Nicholas watched as she rubbed his back and held her hand to his brow. With his own hand he smoothed the next page of the book but succeeded mainly in securing a crease.
‘Do you understand, Robert – and everybody else – the arguments in this passage?’
‘The world was created by a good God…’ began Robert but soon ran out of words.
‘That is true and Augustine wanted us to know that everything in creation was good. But people do not understand the complexity of creation, how things that appear bad may be good in the right places. Divine providence warns us not to make foolish complaints about things, but to enquire diligently into their uses. We must think carefully about everything, but as a matter of humility not pride.’
In humility, or an attempt at it, Nicholas looked into the faces of every member of the household. Some expressions were fixed in polite puzzlement (Milo and Gombert). Some were strained by stepping from the familiar into the deep (Peter and Pieryne). Others seemed content merely to remain in a room made warm by the conjunction of bodies (Guy and Juliana). Jankin was by the door, nurturing a smirk that had begun with the sounding of the word ‘pride’. Felice alone was eager to speak: ‘Why was Saint Augustine so worried that people would not believe in the goodness of creation?’
‘Augustine lived at the time of the sack of Rome by the barbarians. The faith of many was shaken and heretics challenged the truth of Christianity because its great city had fallen. The Manichæans, in particular, spoke of the battle between God and evil as if the two were separate and opposed forces. Augustine writes of the foolishness of those who could not see that God is immutable and cannot be corrupted. He also says that evil is not a thing with its own nature but a falling away from good.’
Nicholas saw that his son’s eyes had wandered back to the Latin, as if it might be easier to understand. But Felice had been listening intently and so had Idonia.
After prayers had been said and the servants left the room, Nicholas continued to trouble himself about what he had read. Augustine believed that evil was lack of good. It was not then a problem of creation but of maintenance. Nicholas was worried that this might yet suggest inadequacy in God. Even if God did not create evil, he allowed it to occur. Not all ‘bad’ things could be explained by man’s misunderstanding, if it were agreed that some were departures from good. He recalled a passage about angels. Angels were all good when they were created by God. The fact that some of them had fallen did not trouble Augustine, by which Nicholas did not mean the saint was not troubled by demons in his own life – it was well known that he was. Rather, it did not seem to trouble him that such tempters had purchase in the world.
‘Do you find Augustine comforting?’ asked Idonia.
‘Yes. Not entirely. But he explains things so well, it feels reckless to question him.’
‘The examples he gives of how good may seem bad – poison, fire, frost, wild beasts – are helpful but they are not the strongest that could be chosen. Do they test him far enough?’
‘Pope Gregory sent saint Augustine to save us,’ said Robert pushing between them.
‘He did, but that was another Augustine,’ said Idonia gently.
‘Augustine of Canterbury was also a great saint,’ said Nicholas. ‘He and king Ethelbert saved this island from oblivion when it had lost its way. He toiled to save the souls of Albion by bringing the pagans to God.’
‘It is hard to sustain effort over so many years,’ said Idonia.
‘I would not expect you to say that.’
‘You are so diligent yourself.’
‘And that makes it easy?’
‘Diligence may give the illusion of ease. It would be far less effort to lie down and cry.’
‘What did the other Augustine do?’ asked Robert.
‘He stood at a lectern in Africa and wrote.’
‘There are many ways to save souls, Robert,’ said Idonia. ‘One saint hopes to do it with ink, another with a long journey and alliance with a warrior king.’ She turned her head slowly from her son to her husband and cut the air which floated her words so that the last were almost without volume: ‘It doesn’t matter how you get there, it seems. But how do you determine the way to the next world from one that makes no sense?’
‘Well, yes, sometimes it is easier to have faith in the world to come than in this one. But does this one make no sense to you?’
‘When great men write they make the world sound reasonable. But in this life we can see the world and feel it. And it is not good.’
‘How is it not good?’
‘I think you know, Nichol,’ she said as Robert wound himself around her and grinned up at his father. ‘It is difficult to understand a world where what is good may tarnish or be snatched away at any moment, where there is greed and anger and sorrow and injustice. I saw a child sitting with its mother in the church wall. It looked in pain and when I had walked to the other side I saw that the side of his face was eaten up by an enormous growth. There was an expression on his mother’s face that was even uglier than the child’s. She wanted him to die. Even though she had brought him to the church, she was cursing God.’
‘But you know that God is good, that he made the world according to his purpose. We have just been listening to Augustine’s answers to these problems. Did you not follow, or are you standing against what is known of God by the whole world?’ But even as he asked this question he recalled that the whole world did not concur. Here in London, the heart of England, within the circle of Christendom, it would be a monstrous effort not to agree with the thousands of tongues that flexed around you. But there were other men, who still looked like men, who did not believe or believed other things. There were men in hot places with strange designs on their garments who told you there was another god, a god that was not the same as ours. And there were men without garments who could not talk in any meaningful way. What did they believe? Nothing that stopped them killing each other or slithering in the dust like snakes. In distant places faith was tested against contending tongues. The conviction of the crowd was no longer an argument and indeed should never have been seen as one.
Robert was standing before them declining the verb vastare, to lay waste, in a rapid crescendo: ‘Vasto, vastas, vastat, vastamus, vastatis…’ But before he could complete the plurals he was coughing again. Nicholas seized on the idea of crusade but it was a blessing and a burden. It was true that warfare maintained virtue and vitality when it was against a mortal enemy. But when it was against the voice of the devil inside your head, or the surge in your guts – then it was not a matter of glory but of grief.
He was awoken in the night by a dagger at his throat. Idonia sneezed a second time and turned away, sensibly oblivious to an intruder without flesh. Grey, silver, charcoal and milk white – the room was layered in shades of the moon. The point of a feather had stabbed him through the pillow cover. His blood was black on the silk. Across the city, aliens slept in hovels and were pricked by straw. But their blood ran red because it passed lustily into the veins of their children.
He listened awhile to the wind across the courtyard. There was a regularity to it, a start and stop rhythm that strangely lacked consequence. He did not hear the scratching of wooden fingers on the walls, or bundles shifting in the yard, just the little puffs of wind. So seemed the affairs of men on occasion, when no account could be had of what led from one event to another, motive and action, reason or responsibility. You could spend a lifetime plotting causes and learning the ways of men and yet be hit flat in the face by nonsense, the sheen of coherence collapsing into emptiness.
Idonia turned again. Her shoulders stretched and then settled. A stripe of moonlight met a strand of her hair. The wind in the courtyard blew more softly. Nicholas remembered the cold of the bed in his father’s house. Windows stayed open all winter and the bedclothes had lost too many of their feathers. His father had money to replace them but believed that mankind must be perfected by pain. He shuddered. So much folly from heart-bent sense. Leave pain to the poor. They did not chose nor welcome it, but at least had the consolation of complaining about it. He would not give away his clean sheets or his soft embroidered quilt. To have spare blankets in a chest against the wall was a blessing too bright to imagine away. To feel warm in the night and to know that however many layers were required, success would supply them – that was a solid foundation to a virtuous life.
Nicholas had been talking to Robert but now he was talking to himself. The snow was gentle in the sky but deep under foot. His prints stepped backwards to the corner of Dowgate and Thames Street but nothing marked them. Where was the inattentive oaf, who cared not a snowflake for what his father had to say?
Around the corner the little footsteps had stopped and a snowman was forming. ‘Father, I see that star you showed me!’ Robert was staring over Vintry towards the shivering Savoy, where the cloud had parted for a moment. In the twilight they looked up at the still point in the sky.
‘Evening star,’ said Robert.
‘Robert we need to be home.’
‘Won’t be able to see it at home.’
‘Because it is here, next to the church.’
‘We’ve seen it from our house before.’
Robert looked at his father with surprise and contempt: ‘But today…’ He pointed a stiff arm up into the air.
‘If something is a very long way away you can see it from lots of places.’
‘How far away is the star?’
‘Further than an eagle can fly, beyond the clouds, as high as the sky and the sun and the moon.’
On this fantastic basis Nicholas succeeded in persuading his son to walk back to La Riole.
‘I don’t see the star, father,’ was the sharp little speech as they entered the court yard. Nicholas saw that the clouds had closed again. Nothing could be made out in the heavens. He was ready to flatten further protest but Robert was hopping across the snow following a track of prints into the silvery dark. Tiny prints they were, closely spaced and with round toes.
‘What’s there? Come in, Robert!’
‘A little cat. I think it’s cold. It wants to warm up by the fire.’
‘Don’t touch it, Robert. Don’t go close. It might bite. It certainly can’t come in the house, but it is time that you did.’ Nicholas slapped his own face and laughed. Why did he have a son who wandered in pursuit of one pretty thing after another? And why as a father could he not call him back to the real world? He could silence the Guildhall, summon the militia, put an argument to the king, but none of this seemed of any use when dealing with a child.
‘In now, Robert!’
‘I want to play with the cat.’
‘Can I bring it into the scullery? I think it’s poorly.’
‘I’m not going to come and get you. You come in without the animal or you stay out in the cold.’ Ridiculous. What was the matter with him? Walking back to fetch the star-gazer? Wanting now to walk into the far corner of the yard to pick up the lion-tamer? No this must end and Robert must learn. Nicholas went into the house.
The cat kept coming back. Idonia did not want it in the house and shrieked when she found it there. As she did not shriek for any other reason, Nicholas found it difficult to understand the strength of her displeasure. The cat had beautiful fur now that it was eating scraps regularly from the kitchen. Sooner or later someone would catch it for a hat or a muffler. In the meantime Robert was out in the yard looking for it behind sacks or chasing it round the outside of the house or sitting in the sun with it curled beside him. Perhaps this flea-ridden snatch of life had something to offer, or why would God have made these canny creatures? Were they on the Arc? He couldn’t remember. God must have meant animals for the benefit of man. Otherwise, why have them? Without souls they could not be judged and so had no purpose of their own. Their existence was short, earthbound, meaningless.
The cat was shifting in its sleep. It had warmed one side in the sun and now, though apparently unconscious, it was organised enough to turn and warm the other. Robert moved his arm to assist the process. He stroked the stripy head. The cat awoke and pushed its chin against his fingers.
‘He likes me to scratch him there,’ said Robert proudly.
‘Don’t let your mother see you.’