By Noah Gordon
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA Copyright © 1986 Lise Gordon, Michael Seay Gordon and The Jamie Gordon Trust
All rights reserved.
THE DEVIL IN LONDON
These were Rob J.'s last safe and secure moments of blessed innocence, but in his ignorance he considered it hardship to be forced to remain near his father's house with his brothers and his sister. This early in the spring, the sun rode low enough to send warm licks under the eaves of the thatched roof, and he sprawled on the rough stone stoop outside the front door, enjoying the coziness. A woman was picking her way over the broken surface of Carpenter's Street. The street needed repair, as did most of the small frame workingmen's houses thrown up carelessly by skilled artisans who earned their living erecting solid homes for those richer and more fortunate.
He was shelling a basket of early peas and trying to keep his eyes on the younger children, his responsibility when Mam was away. William Stewart, six, and Anne Mary, four, were grubbing in the dirt at the side of the house and playing secret giggly games. Jonathan Carter, eighteen months old, lay on a lambskin, papped, burped, and gurgling with content. Samuel Edward, who was seven, had given Rob J. the slip. Somehow crafty Samuel always managed to melt away instead of sharing work, and Rob was keeping an eye out for him, feeling wrathful. He split the green pods one after another and scraped the peas from the waxy seedcase with his thumb the way Mam did, not pausing as he noted the woman coming directly to him.
Stays in her stained bodice raised her bosom so that sometimes when she moved there was a glimpse of rouged nipple, and her fleshy face was garish with cosmetics. Rob J. was only nine years old but a child of London knew a trollop.
"Here now. This Nathanael Cole's house?"
He studied her resentfully, for it wasn't the first time tarts had come to their door seeking his father. "Who wants to learn?" he said roughly, glad his Da was out seeking work and she had missed him, glad his Mam was out delivering embroidery and was spared embarrassment.
"His wife needs him. She sent me."
"What do you mean, needs him?" The competent young hands stopped shelling peas.
The whore regarded him coolly, having caught his opinion of her in his tone and manner. "She your mother?"
"She's taken labor bad. She's in Egglestan's stables close by Puddle Dock. You'd best find your father and tell him," the woman said, and went away.
The boy looked about desperately. "Samuel!" he shouted, but bloody Samuel was off who-knows-where, as usual, and Rob fetched William and Anne Mary from their play. "Take care of the small ones, Willum," he said. Then he left the house and started to run.
Those who may be depended upon to prattle said Anno Domini 1021, the year of Agnes Cole's eighth pregnancy, belonged to Satan. It had been marked by calamities to people and monstrosities of nature. The previous autumn the harvest in the fields had been blighted by hard frosts that froze rivers. There were rains such as never before, and with the rapid thaw a high tide ran up the Thames and tore away bridges and homes. Stars fell, streaming light down windy winter skies, and a comet was seen. In February the earth distinctly quaked. Lightning struck the head off a crucifix and men muttered that Christ and his saints slept. It was rumored that for three days a spring had flowed with blood, and travelers reported the Devil appearing in woods and secret places.
Agnes had told her eldest son not to pay heed to the talk. But she had added uneasily that if Rob J. saw or heard anything unusual, he must make the sign of the Cross.
People were placing a heavy burden on God that year, for the crop failure had brought hard times. Nathanael had earned no pay for more than four months and was kept by his wife's ability to create fine embroideries.
When they were newly wed, she and Nathanael had been sick with love and very confident of their future; it had been his plan to become wealthy as a contractor-builder. But promotion was slow within the carpenters' guild, at the hands of examination committees who scrutinized test projects as if each piece of work were meant for the King. He had spent six years as Apprentice Carpenter and twice that long as Companion Joiner. By now he should have been an aspirant for Master Carpenter, the professional classification needed to become a contractor. But the process of becoming a Master took energy and prosperous times, and he was too dispirited to try.
Their lives continued to revolve around the trade guild, but now even the London Corporation of Carpenters failed them, for each morning Nathanael reported to the guild house only to learn there were no jobs. With other hopeless men he sought escape in a brew they called pigment: one of the carpenters would produce honey, someone else brought out a few spices, and the Corporation always had a jug of wine at hand.
Carpenters' wives told Agnes that often one of the men would go out and bring back a woman on whom their unemployed husbands took drunken turns.
Despite his failings she couldn't shun Nathanael, she was too fond of fleshly delight. He kept her belly large, pumping her full of child as soon as she was emptied, and whenever she was nearing term he avoided their home. Their life conformed almost exactly to the dire predictions made by her father when, with Rob J. already in her, she had married the young carpenter who had come to Watford to help build their neighbor's barn. Her father had blamed her schooling, saying that education filled a woman with lascivious folly.
Her father had owned his small farm, which had been given him by Aethelred of Wessex in lieu of pay for military service. He was the first of the Kemp family to become a yeoman. Walter Kemp had sent his daughter for schooling in the hope that it would gain her a landowner's marriage, for proprietors of great estates found it handy to have a trusted person who was able to read and do sums, and why should it not be a wife? He had been embittered to see her make a low and sluttish match. He had not even been able to disinherit her, poor man. His tiny holding had gone to the Crown for back taxes when he died.
But his ambition had shaped her life. The five happiest years of her memory had been as a child in the nunnery school. The nuns had worn scarlet shoes, white and violet tunics, and veils delicate as cloud. They had taught her to read and to write, to recognize a smattering of Latin as it was used in the catechism, to cut clothing and sew an invisible seam, and to produce orphrey, embroidery so elegant it was sought after in France, where it was known as English Work.
The "foolishness" she had learned from the nuns now kept her family in food.
This morning she had debated about whether to go to deliver her orphrey. It was close to her time and she felt huge and clumsy, but there was little left in the larder. It was necessary to go to Billingsgate Market to buy flour and meal, and for that she needed the money that would be paid by the embroidery exporter who lived in Southwark on the other side of the river. Carrying her small bundle, she made her way slowly down Thames Street toward London Bridge.
As usual, Thames Street was crowded with pack animals and stevedores moving merchandise between the cavernous warehouses and the forest of ships' masts on the quays. The noise fell on her like rain on a drought. Despite their troubles, she was grateful to Nathanael for taking her away from Watford and the farm.
She loved this city so!
"Whoreson! You come back here and give me my money. Give it on back," a furious woman screeched at someone Agnes couldn't see.
Skeins of laughter were tangled with ribbons of words in foreign languages. Curses were hurled like affectionate blessings.
She walked past ragged slaves lugging pigs of iron to waiting ships. Dogs barked at the wretched men who struggled under their brutal loads, pearls of sweat gleaming on their shaven heads. She breathed the garlic odor of their unwashed bodies and the metallic stink of the pig iron and then a more welcome smell from a cart where a man was hawking meat pasties. Her mouth watered but she had a single coin in her pocket and hungry children at home. "Pies like sweet sin," the man called. "Hot and good!"
The docks gave off an aroma of sun-warmed pine pitch and tarred rope. She held a hand to her stomach as she walked and felt her baby move, floating in the ocean contained between her hips. On the corner a rabble of sailors with flowers in their caps sang lustily while three musicians played on a fife, a drum, and a harp. As she moved past them she noted a man leaning against a strange-looking wagon marked with the signs of the zodiac. He was perhaps forty years old. He was beginning to lose his hair, which like his beard was strong brown in color. His features were comely; he would have been more handsome than Nathanael save for the fact that he was fat. His face was ruddy and his stomach bloomed before him as fully as her own. His corpulence didn't repel; on the contrary, it disarmed and charmed and told the viewer that here was a friendly and convivial spirit too fond of the best things in life. His blue eyes had a glint and sparkle that matched the smile on his lips. "Pretty mistress. Be my dolly?" he said. Startled, she looked about to see to whom he might be speaking, but there was no one else.
"Hah!" Ordinarily she would have frozen trash with a glance and put him out of mind, but she had a sense of humor and enjoyed a man with one, and this was too rich.
"We are made for one another. I would die for you, my lady," he called after her ardently.
"No need. Christ already has, sirrah," she said.
She lifted her head, squared her shoulders, and walked away with a seductive twitch, preceded by the almost unbelievable enormity of her child-laden stomach and joining in his laughter.
It had been a long time since a man had complimented her femaleness, even in jest, and the absurd exchange lifted her spirits as she navigated Thames Street. Still smiling, she was approaching Puddle Dock when the pain came.
"Merciful mother," she whispered.
It struck again, beginning in her abdomen but taking over her mind and entire body so that she was unable to stand. As she sank to the cobbles of the public way the bag of waters burst.
"Help me!" she cried. "Somebody!"
A London crowd gathered at once, eager to see, and she was hemmed in by legs. Through a mist of pain she perceived a circle of faces looking down at her.
"Here now, you bastards," a drayman growled. "Give her room to breathe. And let us earn our daily bread. Get her off the street so our wagons can pass."
They carried her into a place that was dark and cool and smelled strongly of manure. In the course of the move someone made off with her bundle of orphrey. Deeper within the gloom, great forms shifted and swayed. A hoof kicked a board with a sharp report, and there was a loud whickering.
"What's all this? Now, you cannot bring her in here," a querulous voice said. He was a fussy little man, potbellied and gap-toothed, and when she saw his hostler's boots and cap she recognized him for Geoff Egglestan and knew she was in his stables. More than a year ago Nathanael had rebuilt some stalls here, and she grasped at the fact.
"Master Egglestan," she said faintly. "I am Agnes Cole, wife of the carpenter, with whom you are well acquainted."
She thought she saw unwilling recognition on his face, and the surly knowledge that he couldn't turn her away.
The people crowded in behind him, bright-eyed with curiosity.
Agnes gasped. "Please, will somebody be kind enough to fetch my husband?" she asked.
"I can't leave my business," Egglestan muttered. "Somebody else must go"
No one moved or spoke.
Her hand went to her pocket and found the coin. "Please," she said again, and held it up.
"I'll do my Christian duty," a woman, obviously a streetwalker, said at once. Her fingers closed over the coin like a claw.
The pain was unbearable, a new and different pain. She was accustomed to close contractions; her labors had been mildly difficult after the first two pregnancies but in the process she had stretched. There had been miscarriages before and following the birth of Anne Mary, but both Jonathan and the girl child had left her body easily after the breaking of the waters, like slick little seeds squirted between two fingers. In five birthings she had never experienced anything like this.
Sweet Agnes, she said in numb silence. Sweet Agnes who succors the lambs, succor me.
Always during labor she prayed to her name saint and Saint Agnes helped, but this time the whole world was unremitting pain and the child was in her like a great plug.
Eventually her ragged screams attracted the attention of a passing midwife, a crone who was more than slightly drunk, and she drove the spectators from the stables with curses. When she turned back, she studied Agnes with disgust. "Bloody men set you down in the shit," she muttered. There was no better place to move her. She lifted Agnes' skirts above her waist and cut away the undergarments; then on the floor in front of the gaping pudenda she brushed away the strawy manure with her hands, which she wiped on a filthy apron.
From her pocket she took a vial of lard already darkened with the blood and juices of other women. Scooping out some of the rancid grease, she made washing movements until her hands were lubricated, then she eased first two fingers, then three, then her entire hand into the dilated orifice of the straining woman who was now howling like an animal.
"You'll hurt twice as much, mistress," the midwife said in a few moments, lubricating her arms up to the elbows. "The little beggar could bite its own toes, had it a mind to. It's coming out arse first."
A FAMILY OF THE GUILD
Rob J. had started to run toward Puddle Dock. Then he realized that he had to find his father and he turned toward the carpenters' guild, as every member's child knew to do in time of trouble.
The London Corporation of Carpenters was housed at the end of Carpenter's Street in an old structure of wattle-and-daub, a framework of poles interwoven with withes and branches thickly overlaid with mortar that had to be renewed every few years. Inside the roomy guild house a dozen men in the leather doublets and tool belts of their trade were seated at the rough chairs and tables made by the house committee; he recognized neighbors and members of his father's Ten but didn't see Nathanael.
The guild was everything to the London woodworkers—employment office, dispensary, burial society, social center, relief organization during periods of unemployment, arbiter, placement service and hiring hall, political influence and moral force. It was a tightly organized society composed of four divisions of carpenters called Hundreds. Each Hundred was made up of ten Tens that met separately and more intimately, and it wasn't until a member was lost to a Ten by death, extended illness, or relocation that a new member was taken into the guild as Apprentice Carpenter, usually from a waiting list that contained the names of sons of members. The word of its Chief Carpenter was as final as that of any royalty, and it was to this personage, Richard Bukerel, that Rob now hurried. (Continues...)
Excerpted from The Physician by Noah Gordon. Copyright © 1986 Lise Gordon, Michael Seay Gordon and The Jamie Gordon Trust. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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