Wednesday, April 13, 2011
The Liberties of London Chapter 2
The snow had looked so pleasant from inside the tavern. Trudging through it though reduced Ned to a string of damply chilled bitter complaints about his lords and masters. And that gloating bastard Gruesome Rodger! What was so damned urgent that that foolish herb dabbler sent her looming minion out to menace and threaten his attendance? It was warm and comfortable back at the Spread Eagle Tavern. Good company, plenty of sweet sack and they’d just begun to serve the first feast! He’d barely even started that venison pie and it had smelt so delightful. Just to rub salt in the wound, his daemon incautiously reminded him of the lost opportunity of cards and dice. Damn that summons! He’d planned to reap a dozen angels or more from the Christmas games of chance. Worst of all, he’d been forced to leave Rob Black in charge. Now the feasting would be fine, but the lad had too open and honest a face to deal with the practiced deceivers of the law courts in a round of Ruff and Honour. Despite that mounting frustration, Ned steeled himself and strode grimly on in the wake of the long legged Rodger.
As the world currently stood, it behoved Ned not to upset Cromwell. The former secretary to Cardinal Wolsey was now a rising star of the
Royal Court. He’d even spoken in defence of his cast aside lord and master in the recent Parliament. Now considering that to the Commons, Wolsey was as popular as a visitation of the ‘sweats’, that was either extremely brave or the height of folly. Only a man certain of Royal favour dared take the chance. Ned, it seemed, wasn’t the only one to profit from the Cardinal’s Angels. Cromwell, for his minuscule efforts, had reaped the richer rewards of Royal patronage, while Meg and her brother Rob, and of course Gruesome Roger along with himself, took all the risks of solving the combination of treason and murder.
It wasn’t fair, but then it was a corrupt and decayed world where priests waxed fat on selling indulgences for sin, then tottered off to the priory where they caroused and humped the choicest punks till the Compline bells reluctantly dragged them off to mass. As they say, ‘tis only perfect in heaven. It is claimed by philosophers and physicians that the physical world can reflect the melancholy or choler of the inner man. That was probably why treatments for illnesses have to be timed so closely to their influencing astronomical signs. Or in layman’s terms, so as above, so below. Well Ned had failed to follow this simple rule, lost as he was in shivering rancour.
So concentrating on his higher difficulties he lost track of the lower obstructions and tripped over a low mound and sprawled sliding several feet down the street. “Phewwer! By all the damned saints!” Ned shook his head and spat out a mouthful of snow, while he heard a loud raucous laugh from some way above him.
It was that double damned Gruesome Rodger, and the cursed minion was leaning against a wattle wall for support, in between fits of mirth that almost left him breathless. “By Chris’ blood Bedwell, y’ make a better play at the tumbling fool than any mummer!”
Ned pushed himself up from the snow and glared. His gown and over mantle were smeared with some half frozen muck and his borrowed boots had scooped up what felt like a double firkin of snow which was slowly beginning to melt and trickle down his hose. This wasn’t a good day and he loudly cursed Meg Black as a useless hedge fossicker and Rodger as her witless worthless minion. His fuming apparently lost its evident meaning for Gruesome Roger was now roaring with laughter, tears even started from his eyes. Giving up on this fruitless cursing, Ned jammed his sodden cap back on his head, and ignoring the mocking stares and chuckles from the few street denizens, stomped off through the snow. Meg Black was going to rue this day!
Leaning against the door post of Williams the apothecary, Ned made a vain attempt at cleaning off the encrusted semi frozen ordure from his boots. He wasn’t sure whether that reduced the stench or just smeared it over a larger surface. Anyway his effort gave Gruesome Rodger almost as good a chuckle as when he’d tripped over the frozen ruts. That mocking laughter was echoed by the small cluster of plainly dressed livery men huddled in the shelter of the doorway of the small ale house across the lane. Ned turned towards them, hand prominently on sword hilt, and snarled. The mirth subsided as they abruptly retreated indoors. After some minutes effort, his condition was as good as it was going to get. So tugging his fur collared over mantle into a less dishevelled condition, he haughtily dismissed Rodger’s smirking bow and strode purposefully through the opened door. And came to a precipitous halt.
The scene inside was not one he’d in any way anticipated. Meg Black, the cause of his summoning and current bane of his life, was standing in the centre of the chamber, and looking markedly different. For one thing, as he’d seen a few hours ago when he snagged Rob, Mistress Black, apprentice apothecary, was pounding away at some arcane blend of herbs and spices in a heavy pestle. As you’d expect she was dressed in a more trade orientated apparel, which tended towards a heavy linen apron over her workaday simple blue dress. As befitting the temper of the season, she’d also pulled on a heavy woollen over mantle, probably from her uncle’s wardrobe. Not the most attractive or alluring attire, but Ned understood the requirements of craft. The workroom, stacked with glass retorts, ambics and pottery jars of herbs and unguents, was not a place to flounce around in silk and scarlet.
Now however Mistress Margaret Black, renowned as the most practical of girls, had somehow transformed into the sort of attire Ned expected to find at court. A pearl studded french hood covered her long hair and she had on a fur collared blue kirtle and bodice with silk trim. What was going on?
She also had visitors, a pair of them both sitting on the carved chairs Master Williams reserved for his more important customers. From their clothing alone they’d have merited a host of bowing flunkeys as well. A large built woman of middling years sat closest to the fire. She was arrayed in the sort of dress that Ned had lately seen around the Inns of Court. It was without excessive trim, ornament or colours, in fact the veritable plain plumaged magpie of modern fashion. However, as Ned had noticed, it took an awful lot of very expensive material to appear so unadorned. Any merchant tailor would quiver in ecstasy if she crossed their threshold as a customer. If that wasn’t enough of a clue to status, a ruby on a gold chain hung from her fur shrouded neck. Ned immediately turned his skidding halt into a low bow.
“My lady, this is Master Edward Bedwell.” The introduction came from a curtseying Meg Black.
“Ahemmm, I see.” It was a reluctant admission of fact, from the kind of disapproving face of the devoted lemon sucker.
Meg Black undeterred by the sour tone continued with the introductions. “Ned, I have the honour to present Lady Dellingham and her son Walter. They’re good friends of Councillor Cromwell and my Uncle Williams.”
At that none too subtle hint, Ned doffed his cap and gave an extra flourish as he pushed his bow that bit further. The effort gained a snorted harrumph. Whether that was approval or disdain was hard to tell. The cluster of the shivering liverymen outside was explained, though not the reason. Rodger had been his usual jocular, voluble self and inferred nought of this on the journey through the
slush and snow. How remiss of him. He was probably laughing fit to burst outside. London
Ned straightened up. “My lady, I am honoured to be your servant.” Well not really but politeness and manners still prevailed, even after being dragged from a roasted pig and venison pie, not to mention the diaphanous clad trio, then half way across the city in the mud and snow, at Mistress Black’s damned summons. In the pause between courtesies Ned gave the apothecary’s guests a rapid peruse.
The lad she’d named as Walter sat relatively close to his mother in the same plain, finely cut, dark clothing with not even a touch of velvet for decoration. At a guess he was about sixteen, tall and thin and, to Ned, the meekest looking lad he’d ever seen. His hair was butter yellow like his mothers, but whereas hers was primly tucked into a gable hood, Walter’s straggled down to his shoulder in limp tendrils. It framed the very essence of a forgettable face, washed out grey eyes that bulged and appeared to regard the world around as a mournful and melancholy place. Currently he had his walking stick clenched between his knees and clutched desperately at the silver knob as if it were a child’s sucket that was about to taken away. Ned’s daemon supplied an appropriate label, ‘Walter wouldn’t say boo to a goose and was the most perfect cony’.
His mother, Lady Dellingham, gave one of those arch coughs that Ned was starting to associate with another forthcoming statement. “So you’re Master Bedwell. Councillor Cromwell spoke of you.” If you went by the tone of voice, it sounded like Lady Dellingham had equated him as only slightly better than a privy cleaner. Her throat thrummed in a cross between a growl and a harrumph. “Ahemmm! He said your understanding of reform and piety was still in need of some work, though he stated you were a man who knew well the perils of a large city.”
Ned gave another courtly bow at the evaluation. It may have been a compliment. However he knew how Cromwell’s mind ticked and his daemon quivered in alarum. “Councillor Cromwell is the lodestone of my conscience.” Ned’s daemon and better angel agreed. That sounded perfectly acceptable and had the benefit of being true. He’d be the simplest lackwit if he didn’t keep a watch on Cromwell’s machinations.
At his answer her nostril flared as if she’d tripped over a dead dog. “Ahemmm, yes. So Mistress Black has avowed.”
Ned tried not to glare at the apprentice apothecary to his right. Something was going on, and he had the strongest suspicion the apprentice herb dabbler was about to dump him in the proverbial privy. How did all this concern him?
“Ahemm. Walter is travelling to
after Twelfth Night. He’s been promised a position in the household of the eminent Pastor, Zwingli.” Zurich
Ned bowed his head in reverence. Ahh yes, that mention gave him all the information he needed to place Lady Dellingham. She was one of the clique of ardent church reformers that were said to be associated with Lady Anne Boleyn. From what he’d heard at the Inns, and from Meg Black, Ulrich Zwingli was reformist enough to be condemned by the church and moderate enough to be lambasted by Luther.
Lady Dellingham gave another of her distinctive coughs and continued. “Ahemm. His father and I felt it would improve his education to view the city, while we consult with Councillor Cromwell and tour some establishments practicing modern reform.”
To Ned that sounded like the beginning of a ‘however’ statement. “Ahemm. Poor Walter here has a delicate constitution and Doctor Butts has prescribed a few days of rest and a diet of lettuce and cooling foods to bring his humours into balance. However, since my husband and I have to travel to
Hampton Court, Councillor Cromwell said we couldn’t do better than commend Walter to your care.”
Ned tried very hard not to scream out a refusal. Both his angel and the daemon choked the words into a strangled cough. Remember, they counselled nervously, the Dellinghams are friends of Cromwell.
“Ahemm. Walter is as ascetic. Like all our family, we model our lives on the early church fathers, and follow the pure unencumbered strictures of Our Saviour as translated by our dear brethren overseas. Back in
Shropshire we live a simple life of devotion and prayer.”
Ned gave what he considered to be a reformer’s tight smile and bowed again, while shooting Meg Black another curious glance. He still wasn’t sure how all this effected him. So this pair was as touched as the maddest Bedlamite. What was the point of dragging him away from the pleasures of the Christmas revel?
Lady Dellingham gave forth another of her peculiar throat clearings and started up again. “Ahemm!”
In the meantime Meg, cursed be her name, Black spoke up. “My lady, it would be an honour to have him as our guest.”
No it bloody well wouldn’t, screamed Ned’s daemon, though luckily all that come out was a slight strangled gasp. Even that sound gained an instant disapproving glare. Ned apologetically rubbed his throat as though the chill airs of the season were affecting him.
“Ahemm! Master Bedwell, I hope that is not an ague? Walter’s humours are so easily unbalanced. Even the sight of some poor soul coughing sends him into a melancholy humour.”
At this bizarre reproof, Ned was momentarily lost for an answer. He needn’t have bothered. Meg Black immediately stepped into the gap. “My lady, Master Bedwell is under the supervision of a most distinguished physician who, in the past, served the Royal household, and I dose him weekly to maintain a regimen of good physick.”
To Ned this was all news. He tried hard to look healthy and respectful, though his daemon saw fit to question whether this was a concocted story for the benefit of their particular visitor? Or was Mistress Black still consorting with that notorious trafficker in dark arts, Dr Caerleon?
It didn’t matter. Lady Dellingham gave him the sort of long nosed, questioning stare he was sure she bestowed upon known lepers and ‘sweats’ victims. “Ahemm, if that is so…”
Lady Dellingham left the statement open and shifted her bulk up from the chair in a slow ponderous upheaval and, ignoring his instant and very courtly bow, turned to her son. “Walter I leave you in the care of these two. Remember that in the city the devil lays out snares even for the pious.” Then giving both Ned and Meg a final lemon–sucking, pinch–mouthed glare, she strode out of the suddenly opened door.
Ned was the first to recover from the abrupt departure and gave his companion–in–care a quizzical shrug before walking over to Walter with a friendly smile. “So Walter, what do you want to do and where do you want to go now you’re in the premier city of the kingdom?”
Their mousy charge gave them both a timid hesitant smile that would shame a cony, and stared at them with those bulging, watery eyes and murmured his request. Later on Ned would curse that as his greatest mistake. If only Meg Black had spoken first the trouble may have been less. But then, when Lady Fortuna deals you a Ruff hand, it pays to play it bold.
And that it for the free sample folks! The complete story will be available on both Smashwords and Amazon Kindle for an extremely modest price within the next few days! It will also include a free sample of the next Red Ned Adventure -The Queens Oranges, a complex tale of smuggling, heretical books and ...oranges!