Friday, April 1, 2011
The Liberties of London Chapter 1
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Antipodes I suggest this site http://www.redcross.org.au/japan2011.htm . Or see my prior Red Ned posts for other options.
Now having left poor Ned hanging over the proverbial we go to chapter 1 and the start of his predicament, have read, and a chuckle as Ned tries to sort out his mounting difficulties in his version of a perfect Christmas.
A Christmas Revel, Christmas Eve
The trilling notes of a harp chimed gently behind him as Ned rubbed his hands in front of the blazing fire. The sounds were echoed a moment later by the throaty laugh of a girl and the soft clink of a cup of sack bumping the table. A glance out the diamond paned window told him that they’d made it here in good time. The usual mounds of street refuse were now being steadily covered in a hefty layer of white snow. No doubt even the water tubs that stood under the building’s eaves now had a surface of ice an inch thick. Despite the chill he found the scene alluring.
looked so much different in the white velvet blanket, almost as if it was donning its Twelfth Night mask apparel. Thus in one day she transformed into a pale fair mistress, rather than as some court wit had it, a pock marked crone with the fetid stench of the Fleete Ditch. The improved aspect and the subduing of the foul city airs were to Ned only the first of the benefits the winter snow had bestowed on him. London
The second had been the growling dismissal by his master, Richard Rich, that year’s esteemed Autumn reader at Lincoln Inn. Most prentice lawyers were worked hard by their masters, eager to screw the last ounce of worth from the winter’s light, before having to resort to rush lights or expensive candles. So Ned shouldn’t complain too much because his fingers were cramped from his laboured task of writing up pleas for the upcoming law term. Or that the room’s meagre fire put out so little warmth that the ink in its brass pot frequently froze over and he had to chaff it warm to write. However in his case it was worse, since his master was also inconveniently his uncle. In this season it was a common joke around the Inns that Master Rich’s filial regard for his ‘worthless’ nephew bordered on that of His Sovereign Majesty’s for his recently dismissed former chancellor, Cardinal Wolsey. Thus, despite the difficulties, Ned’s better angel kept reminding him it could be worse. He could be serving his patron, Councillor Cromwell, out in the biting cold on some thankless task. However speculation didn’t aid his plans as his frustrated daemon whispered.
As it transpired, he needn’t have fretted. Lady Fortuna in the guise of his Aunt Elizabeth swept in to remind his ‘honoured’ guardian that he’d promised to take her and the children to the first of the Christmas celebrations at the Mercers Hall. That was just as well. Three hours of enduring Uncle Richard’s disapproving snorts at his efforts had strained the bonds of service. If the old fool had sneered at his transcribing one more time Ned would thrown the pile of papers and the frozen ink pot at him and be damned. However a miracle had happened and the Christmas piety had penetrated his uncle’s hard and flinty heart. Thus he was released. At the news Ned’s oldest cousin, little Henry, some seven years old, had capered, jumped and squealed in excitement. Young Hugh though just chuckled and gurgled at the performance. At barely a year he wriggled and kicked bundled in a warm blanket. Luckily Ned had remembered to plead a prior rendezvous with his friend of last year, Rob Black, over at Williams the Apothecary. So apart from a suspicious glare from Uncle Richard, he was exempted from the chaos of the family jaunt. While Ned still chortled at the mummers’ plays, his some seventeen years of age gave him the desire to seek out the more refined pleasures London had to offer.
Just as well. He had plans for this afternoon to increase his share of festive cheer. And they didn’t involve the Rich clan. Since the conclusion of the Cardinal’s Angels affair two months ago, Ned had done some serious thinking regarding his prospects for the winter. That signal success had improved the weight of his formerly lean and starved purse. If he wanted to be regarded as a gentleman, it behoved him to look the part. Witness the heavy green woollen mantle with fur edging, new black hose and a velvet-edged and lined doublet of the best scarlet cloth. This sartorial splendour, apart from keeping him a great deal warmer, had raised his status amongst the other apprentice lawyers, as did the rumours of his part in Cardinal Wolsey’s fall. The result was the enacting of his Christmas plan. Of long standing custom, come the twelve days of celebration, the apprentice lawyers tended to scatter to their homes, though a few gained lodgings in the city with the relatives and patrons family in the city. This usually left fifty or so lads at a lose end. While it was true that the various Masters of the Inns had made provision for their comfort, it tended to be under a watchful eye, so the festival cheer was usually rather muted.
Ned, being a kind and generous fellow, had commiserated with his companions in misery and suggested a possible solution to their woes. If perhaps several of them pooled their resources, a ‘friend’ with connections might arrange a set of private rooms above a reputable tavern. Then that ‘friend’ could also supply the party with all the necessities of cheer, roasted capons, venison pies, sweet berry subtleties, and of course a goodly quantity of the finest sack. Also to complete the scene of Roman Idylls, a bevy of well disposed maidens skilled in harp and song would be at hand. Also for those wishing to compete in a gentlemanly fashion, there was bowls, or chancing the Hazards at dice or even the friendly card game of Ruff and Honour. In fact for accommodation, diversions, drink or provender, Ned reckoned he had it all covered, unless one of the more bucolic of the students began to pine for the dubious woolly pleasures of the country.
After all that pitch, Ned had laid out the final incentive – a spot at this magnificent repast could be had for the modest price of only one angel. The response had been astounding. Some thirty had handed over the required sum, while he’d accepted four shillings and a pledge from three more keen to join. That alone gave him a clear profit of ten angels after the expenses of room, company and provender, though the retention of one of Captaine Gryne’s more presentable retainers had been a little pricy. Despite the fact that his ‘friends’ were gentleman of a sort, the towering presence of Tam Bourke should provide sufficient incentive for a peaceable companionship, no matter how much sack was downed.
“Hey Ned, the first course is here, come on over!”
A flourish of harp strings and a drum roll on the tambour announced their arrival along with a resounding chorus of cheers. Ned turned with a ready smile and breathed deep the rich aroma, as his Christmas company left off their diversions and clustered round the table. The first of several trays appeared, borne by the tavern’s servitors. Ned walked over towards the repast and on the way accepted congratulations from several of his guests. It was only an hour or so in and already the good cheer was spread liberally around.
A pewter cup of sack was thrust into his hand by a large lad with brown tousled hair and blue eyes. The cup bearer towered over most of the gathering and unlike them was dressed in plainer clothes of a dark blue hue, though it wasn’t just his lack of lawyer’s garb that set Rob Black apart. For one thing, his appearance was extremely unlawyerly – at over six foot in height and with broad shoulders that looked strong enough to lift an ox. While Ned had a similar height, his hands only had the calluses’ and ink stains of a clerk. Though he was justifiably proud of his physical skill in a brawl, it couldn’t compete with the heavy craftsman’s trained muscles of his friend. Work with iron and foundry had fleshed out Rob’s build to that of a young Hercules. What’s more he also had a clear honest face, untrammelled by the daily deceits of the courts, as well as a pleasant disposition that had the girls sighing in raptures over his welcoming smile. Ned had found that aspect mildly frustrating when they’d gone drinking in the city taverns. All the girls fell for Rob and his cornflower blue eyes, while Ned Bedwell, handsome apprentice lawyer, was- an after thought. His daemon had pointedly reminded him of that flaw many times, though Rob was good company so he ignored it.
A now freed heavy hand thumped him companionably on the shoulder. “Ned, this private Christmas feast is excellent, thanks for inviting me!”
Ned returned the smile. Asking Rob Black to be his business partner in this venture didn’t need any consideration. Lady Fortuna had blessed him last year when he’d been at his most desperate with barely two groats to rub together. Rob had been rescuing a poor abused country goodwife from the rough frolics of some city apprentices, as Ned had been passing by. In that glorious moment Ned had seen the golden gift of opportunity. He’d put across a credible story and immediately enrolled Rob in a cony catching play, all to recoup a hundred angels from the notorious Paris Bear Gardens owner and Southwark gang lord, Canting Michael.
It had worked brilliantly and despite what Rob’s sister, Meg Black, continually claimed, Ned couldn’t be held to blame if the immediate aftermath had involved a number of unforeseen complications. After all, how was he to know they’d be accused of the murder of a Royal official? Or have an urgent need to clear their names of treason by consorting with a supposedly deceased doctor who was a practitioner of the dark arts of divination? It was said that the politics of the Royal Court under their beloved sovereign, King Henry VIII, could be dangerous. That had proved to be an understatement. It was mercilessly vicious, with friendship and loyalty only smile deep.
Though that peril was now consigned to the past, here and now was a time of celebration. Ned raised his cup. “My good friends and companions, I give you a toast, on this, the eve of Our Saviour’s birth. Good health, good cheer, good company and may we all be as drunk as bishops by Twelfth Night!”
A rousing cheer rang through the feasting room and the assorted apprentice lawyers and clerks hammered the table in a drum roll as the rest of the trays were laid out. The loudest cry came as the roasted pig made its way through the door. Ned had planned the revels to begin with a well laid feast of some fifteen courses, including poached salmon, venison pies and a march pane, almond sugar centre piece in the manner of the gate house of Gray’s Inn. That had been particularly difficult to organise. However Meg Black surprisingly offered to solve the problem. No doubt in her position as an apprentice apothecary she’d have sugar and spices by the pound, as well as access to more extensive kitchens. As the three foot tall subtlety was carefully displayed on the two tier buffet table Ned consoled himself that Rob’s annoying sister had come through and without levering an invitation. That was convenient. He didn’t know how he would have explained the diaphanously clad maidens playing the harp, shawm and tambour in the corner. She wasn’t the kind of lass who’d accepted the excuse of a Christmas tableaux in the manner of Ancient Romans.
Since he was host, Ned had taken a seat at the head of the table and after one of their number intoned an appropriate pray for the day, began to tuck into the first course, the venison pies. It was one of the specialties of the Spread Eagle Tavern. Henry Simkins, the taverner, was known to supply the Barber Surgeon’s Hall at Muggle Street. As all the lads at the Chancery knew the provender at their celebrations was almost as fine as the Mercers Guild, the wealthiest of the London guilds.
Ned was happily swapping the latest tale of Cardinal Wolsey’s woes with John Reedman, one the Chancery clerks, when Tam Bourke, their intimidating door warden, lumbered over to him and bending down, whispering loudly in his ear. “Ned there’s a’ messenger fo’ yea at the stairs.”
“Do you know him? Who’s he from?”
“Oh aye. He’s that grim faced livery man o’ the apothecary lass yea sweet on.”
Ned stifled an immediate retort denying the fact. Any rumours of his affairs of the heart or otherwise were not something he wanted bandied about amongst the gossips of the Inns. By the description, that could only be one person, Meg Black’s looming henchman, Rodger Hawkins or as Ned preferred to think of him, Gruesome Rodger.
“Tam, is it a tall, scar faced fellow with an iron shod cudgel hanging from his belt?”
“Aye that be him.”
Ned pursed his lips in thought. When he’d called around earlier, Meg Black had been busy with her common apothecary duties mixing herbs and the like. She hadn’t expressed any need for his company and apart from a brief snippy jibe at his propensity for including her brother in dubious enterprises, she’d been passably friendly for a change.
Ned leant across the table and asked Reedman to play the host while he dealt with his caller. His fellow clerk from Gray’s was reasonably dependable and had a good reputation at the Inns for solving arguments of precedence.
He’d left Tam on the landing as he made his way down to the bottom of the stairs. The Blacks’ retainer was standing on his own by the fire, giving the tavern’s customers a quizzical scowl. The recent snow melted and steamed off his cloak giving him the appearance of a visitor from the nether regions, an image not improved by the scar that ran across his face half closing his right eye. That was Hawkins all right. No one else in London could match that cynical visage, not even the leering grotesque carvings in the parish churches.
The retainer’s roving eye quickly caught sight of Ned and he strode over to the foot of the stairs and growled out his message. “Hey Bedwell. Y’re wanted at the apothecaries immediately, so stop guzzling wine and stuffing your face.”
Ned stepped off the last tread and consciously straightened up. They were of similar height, though Gruesome Rodger had the lean and rangy appearance of wolf. In Ned’s opinions the lupine cousin had more manners. “I do not come or go at the beckoning of Mistress Black! I have business here this evening. Kindly give her my regrets.” Ned made an effort to put all the disdain he felt into that rebuff, though the answer didn’t appear to sit well with Meg her retainer.
Gruesome Rodger frowned and shook his head. “Y’ right, of course Bedwell. What am I saying? Y’r y’r own master o’course. By the way your cods are unlaced.”
Instinctively Ned glanced down to check. The evil cackle of Gruesome Rodger told him he’d been cony catched.
“So yea haven’t started with the bevy o’ punks y’ got up there? Just as well Mistress Margaret told me to fetch y’. Whether you got your hose on or around your ankles makes no difference ta me.”
Ned’s temper, never on much of a tight rein, spurred him to lash out with his own retort. “You loathsome lewdster, Hawkins. That’s a gathering of gentlemen up there, not some tumbledown ale house, like you inhabit where they hump poxed punks against the wall ‘cause they can’t find any sheep that’ll have them!”
Gruesome Rodger was still for a moment, then his sneering grin returned. “Oh Bedwell, by God’s blood, afore the weeks out, y’ goin’ to rue those words. Y’ll be wading through a river o’shit to beg my forgiveness.”
“If wishes were fishes, Hawkins, your net’d still be empty.” Ned turned his back on the unwanted messenger and began to head back up the stairs. A hand grabbed his sleeve pulling him backwards.
Ned spun around and snarling, put a hand on his dagger. “Unhand me Hawkins. The Blacks may treat you as family, but damned if I don’t know you for a common fioster!”
“Y’know Bedwell, any time you want, it take only a moment to tumble y’ in a ditch. Anyway enough cosseting, are y’ coming or do I tell Cromwell you refused his summons?”
Ned froze. Cromwell was involved? Silently he cursed Gruesome Rodger. The cozener had played him and he’d fallen for it. Ned ground his teeth in suppressed anger. By all the damned saints and cursed devils! Gruesome Rodger gave him one of his gloating grins and nodded at the unasked questioned. Damn, damn, damn! That cunning trickster that trapped him. Ned knew he had no choice. Uncle Richard may have been his master, but Thomas Cromwell, newest member of King Henry VIII’s Privy Council, was his patron and good lord. From what Ned had learnt of his new lord’s habits, Councillor Cromwell didn’t like tardy servants.
***Regards Gregory House