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   Chapter 6 A CITY MERCHANT

A March on London By G. A. Henty Characters: 32345

Updated: 2017-12-06 00:02


"Assuredly it is well that you should go," Sir Ralph said, when his son had repeated the conversation they had had with the trader. "I know not the name, for indeed I know scarce one among the citizens; but if he trades with Venice and Genoa direct he must be a man of repute and standing. It is always well to make friends; and some of these city traders could buy up a score of us poor knights. They are not men who make a display of wealth, and by their attire you cannot tell one from another, but upon grand occasions, such as the accession or marriage of a monarch, they can make a brave show, and can spend sums upon masques and feastings that would well-nigh pay a king's ransom. After a great victory they will set the public conduits running with wine, and every varlet in the city can sit down at banquets prepared for them and eat and drink his fill. It is useful to have friends among such men. They are as proud in their way as are the greatest of our nobles, and they have more than once boldly withstood the will of our kings, and have ever got the best of the dispute."

"What shall we put on, sir," Albert asked his father the next morning, "for this visit to Master Gaiton?"

"You had better put on your best suits," the knight said; "it will show that you have respect for him as a citizen, and indeed the dresses are far less showy than many of those I see worn by some of the young nobles in the streets."

"And what is the young lady like?" Aline asked her brother.

"Methinks she is something like you, Aline, and is about the same age and height; her tresses are somewhat darker than yours; methinks she is somewhat graver and more staid than you are, as I suppose befits a maiden of the city."

"I don't think that you could judge much about that, Albert," his mother said, "seeing that, naturally, the poor girl was grievously shaken by the events of the evening before, and would, moreover, say but little when her father was conversing with two strangers. What thought you of her, Edgar?"

"I scarce noticed her, my lady, for I was talking with her father, and so far as I remember she did not open her lips after being introduced to us. I did not notice the resemblance to your daughter that Albert speaks of, but she seemed to me a fair young maid, who looked not, I own, so heavy as she felt when I carried her."

"That is very uncourteous, Master Edgar," Dame Agatha laughed; "a good knight should hold the weight of a lady to be as light as that of a down pillow."

"Then I fear that I shall never be a true knight," Edgar said, with a smile. "I have heard tales of knights carrying damsels across their shoulder and outstripping the pursuit of caitiffs, from whom she had escaped. I indeed had believed them, but assuredly either those tales are false or I have but a small share of the strength of which I believed myself to be possessed; for, in truth, my arm and shoulder ached by the time I reached the hostelry more than it has ever done after an hour's practice with the mace."

"Well, stand not talking," Sir Ralph said; "it is time for you to change your suits, for these London citizens are, I have heard, precise as to their time, and the merchant would deem it a slight did you not arrive a few minutes before the stroke of the hour."

As soon as they came into Chepe they asked a citizen if he could direct them to the house of Master Robert Gaiton.

"That can I," he said, "and so methinks could every boy and man in the city. Turn to the right; his house stands in a courtyard facing the Guildhall, and is indeed next door to the hall in the left-hand corner."

The house was a large one, each storey, as usual, projecting over the one below it. Some apprentices were just putting up the shutters to the shop, for at noon most of the booths were closed, as at that hour there were no customers, and the assistants and apprentices all took their meal together. There was a private entrance to the house, and Edgar knocked at the door with the hilt of his dagger. A minute later a serving-man opened it.

"Is Master Robert Gaiton within?" Albert asked. "He is, we believe, expecting us."

"I have his orders to conduct you upstairs, sirs."

The staircase was broad and handsome, and, to the lads' surprise, was covered with an Eastern carpet. At the top of the stairs the merchant himself was awaiting them.

"Welcome to my house, gentlemen," he said; "the house that would have been the abode of mourning and woe to-day, had it not been for your bravery."

The merchant was dressed in very different attire to that in which he had travelled. He wore a doublet of brown satin, and hose of the same material and colour; on his shoulders was a robe of Genoa velvet with a collar, and trimming down the front of brown fur, such as the boys had never before seen. Over his neck was a heavy gold chain, which they judged to be a sign of office. The landing was large and square, with richly carved oak panelling, and, like the stairs, it was carpeted with a thick Eastern rug. Taking their hands, he led them through an open door into a large withdrawing-room. Its walls were panelled in a similar manner to those of the landing, but the carpet was deeper and richer. Several splendid armoires or cabinets similarly carved stood against the walls, and in these were gold and silver cups exquisitely chased, salt-cellars, and other silver ware.

The chairs were all in harmony with the room, the seats being of green embossed velvet, and curtains of the same material and hue, with an edging of gold embroidery, hung at the windows. But the lads' eyes could not take in all these matters at once, being fixed upon the lady who rose from her chair to meet them. She was some thirty-five years old, and of singular sweetness of face. There was but little about her of the stiffness that they had expected to find in the wife of a London citizen. She was dressed in a loose robe of purple silk, with costly lace at the neck and sleeves. By her side stood Ursula, who was dressed, as became her age, in lighter colours, which, in cut and material, resembled those of Aline's new attire.

"Dear sirs," she said, as her husband presented the visitors to her, "with what words can I thank you for the service that you have rendered me. But for you I should have been widowed and childless to-day!"

"It was but a chance, Mistress Gaiton," Edgar said. "We saw a stranger in danger of his life from cut-throats, and as honest men should do, we went to his succour. We are glad, indeed, to have been able to render your husband such service, but it was only such an action as a soldier performs when he strikes in to rescue a comrade surrounded by the enemy, or carries off a wounded man who may be altogether a stranger to him."

"That may be true from your point of view," the merchant said, "but just as the man-at-arms rescued from a circle of foes, or the wounded man carried off the field would assuredly feel gratitude to him who has saved him, so do we feel gratitude to you, and naught that you can say will lessen our feeling towards you both. And now let us to the table."

He opened a door leading into another apartment. Edgar glanced at Albert, and as he saw the latter was looking at Ursula, he offered his hand to Dame Gaiton. Albert, with a little start, did the same to the girl. The merchant held aside the hangings of the door and then followed them into the room where the table was laid. It was similar to the room they had left, save that the floor was polished instead of being carpeted. The table was laid with a damask cloth of snowy whiteness and of a fineness of quality such as neither of the lads had ever seen before. The napkins were of similar make. A great silver ornament in the shape of a Venetian galley stood in the centre of the table, flanked by two vases of the same metal filled with flowers. The plates were of oriental porcelain, a contrast indeed to the rough earthenware in general use; the spoons were of gold.

The meats were carved at a side table, and cut into such pieces that there was little occasion for the use of the dagger-shaped knives placed for the use of each. Forks were unknown in Europe until nearly three centuries later, the food being carried to the mouth by the aid of a piece of bread, just as it is still eaten in the East, the spoon being only used for soups and sweetmeats. Two servitors, attired in doublets of red and green cloth, waited. The wine was poured into goblets of Venetian glass; and after several meats had been served round, the lads were surprised at fresh plates being handed to them for the sweetmeats. Before these were put upon the table, a gold bowl with perfumed water was handed round, and all dipped their fingers in this, wiping them on their napkins.

"Truly, Mistress Gaiton," Albert said, courteously, "it seems to me that instead of coming to Court we country folk should come to the city to learn how to live. All this is as strange to me as if I had gone to some far land, by the side of whose people we were as barbarians."

"My husband has been frequently in Italy," she replied, "and he is much enamoured of their mode of life, which he says is strangely in advance of ours. Most of what you see here he has either brought with him thence, or had it sent over to him, or it has been made here from drawings prepared for him for the purpose. The carving of the wood-work is a copy of that in a palace at Genoa; the furniture came by sea from Venice; the gold and silver work is English, for although my husband says that the Italians are great masters in such work and in advance of our own, he holds that English gold and silversmiths can turn out work equal to all but the very best, and he therefore thinks it but right to give employment to London craftsmen. The drapery is far in advance of anything that can be made here; as to the hangings and carpets, although brought from Genoa or Florence, they are all from Eastern looms."

"'Tis strange," the merchant added, "how far we are in most things behind the Continent-in all matters save fighting, and, I may say, the condition of the common people. Look at our garments. Save in the matter of coarse fabrics, nigh everything comes from abroad. The finest cloths come from Flanders; the silks, satins, and velvets from Italy. Our gold work is made from Italian models; our finest arms come from Milan and Spain; our best brass work from Italy. Maybe some day we shall make all these things for ourselves. Then, too, our people-not only those of the lowest class-are more rude and boorish in their manners; they drink more heavily, and eat more coarsely. An English banquet is plentiful, I own, but it lacks the elegance and luxury of one abroad, and save in the matter of joints, there is no comparison between the cooking. Except in the weaving of the roughest linen, we are incomparably behind Flanders, France, or Italy, and although I have striven somewhat to bring my surroundings up to the level of the civilization abroad, the house is but as a hovel compared with the palaces of the Venetian and Genoese merchants, or the rich traders of Flanders and Paris."

"Truly, these must be magnificent indeed," Edgar said, "if they so far surpass yours. I have never even thought of anything so comfortable and handsome as your rooms. I say naught of those in my father's house, for he is a scholar, and so that he can work in peace among his books and in his laboratory he cares naught for aught else; but it is the same in other houses that I have visited; they seem bare and cheerless by the side of yours. I have always heard that the houses of the merchants of London were far more comfortable than the castles of great nobles, but I hardly conceived how great the difference was."

"They are built for different purposes," the merchant said. "The castles are designed wholly with an eye to defence. All is of stone, since that will not burn; the windows are mere slits, designed to shoot from, rather than to give light. We traders, upon the other hand, have not to spend our money on bands of armed retainers. We have our city walls, and each man is a soldier if needs be. Then our intercourse with foreign merchants and our visits to the Continent show us what others are doing, and how vastly their houses are ahead of ours in point of luxury and equipment. We have no show to keep up; and, at any rate, when we go abroad it is neither our custom nor that of the Flemish merchants to vie with the nobility in splendour of apparel or the multitude of retainers and followers. Thus, you see, we can afford to have our homes comfortable."

"May I ask, Master Gaiton, if your robe and chain are badges of office?" Albert asked.

"Yes; I have the honour of being an alderman."

Albert looked surprised. "I thought, sir, that the aldermen were aged men."

"Not always," the merchant said, with a smile, "though generally that is the case. The aldermen are chosen by the votes of the Common Council of each ward, and that choice generally falls upon one whom they deem will worthily represent them, or upon one who shows the most devotion to the interests of the ward and city. My father was a prominent citizen before me, and I early learned from him to take an interest in the affairs of the city. It chanced that, when on the accession of the young king the Duke of Lancaster would have infringed some of our rights and privileges, I was one of the speakers at a meeting of the citizens, and being younger and perhaps more outspoken than others, I came to be looked upon as one of the champions of the city, and thus, without any merit of my own, was elected to represent my ward when a vacancy occurred shortly afterwards."

"My husband scarce does himself justice, Master De Courcy," the trader's wife said, "for it was not only because of his championship of the city's rights, but as one of the richest and most enterprising of our merchants, and because he spends his wealth worthily, giving large gifts to many charities, and being always foremost in every work for the benefit of the citizens. Maybe, too, the fact that he was one of the eight citizens who jousted at the tournament, given at the king's accession, against the nobles of the Court, and who overthrew his adversary, had also something to do with his election."

"Nay, nay, wife! these are private affairs that are of little interest to our guests, and you speak with partiality."

"At any rate, sir," Edgar said, courteously, "the fact that you so bore yourself in the tournament suffices to explain how it was that you were able to keep those cut-throats at bay until just before we arrived at the spot."

"We are peaceful men in the city," the merchant said, "but we know that if we are to maintain our rights, and to give such aid as behoves us to our king in his foreign wars, we need knowledge as much as others how to bear arms. Every apprentice as well as every free man throughout the city has to practise at the butts, and to learn to use sword and dagger. I myself was naturally well instructed; and as my father was wealthy, there were always two or three good horses in his stables, and I learned to couch a lance and sit firm in the saddle. As at Hastings and Poictiers, the contingent of the city has ever been held to bear itself as well as the best; and although we do not, like most men, always go about the street with swords in our belts, we can all use them if needs be. Strangely enough, it is your trading communities that are most given to fighting. Look at Venice and Genoa, Milan and Pisa, Antwerp, Ghent, and Bruges, and to go further back, Carthage and Tyre. And even among us, look at the men of Sandwich and Fowey in Cornwall; they are traders, but still more they are fighters; they are ever harassing the ships of France, and making raids on the French coast."

"I see that it is as you say," Edgar said, "though I have never thought of it before. Somehow one comes to think of the citizens of great towns as being above all things peaceful."

"The difference between them and your knights is, th

at the latter are always ready to fight for honour and glory, and often from the pure love of fighting. We do not want to fight, but are ready to do so for our rights and perhaps for our interests, but at bottom I believe that there is little difference between the classes. Perhaps if we understood each other better we should join more closely together. We are necessary to each other; we have the honour of England equally at heart. The knights and nobles do most of our fighting for us, while we, on our part, import or produce everything they need beyond the common necessities of life; both of us are interested in checking the undue exercise of kingly authority; and if they supply the greater part of the force with which we carry on the war with France, assuredly it is we who find the greater part of the money for the expenses, while we get no share of the spoils of battle."

"Have you any sisters, Master De Courcy?" the merchant's wife asked, presently.

"I have but one; she is just about the same age as your daughter, and methinks there is a strong likeness between them. She and my mother are both here, having been sent for by my father on the news of the troubles in our neighbourhood."

"In that case, wife," the merchant said, "it were seemly that you and

Ursula accompany me to-morrow when I go to pay my respects to Sir Ralph

De Courcy."

After dinner was over the merchant took his guests into a small room adjoining that in which they had dined.

"Friends," he said, "we London merchants are accustomed to express our gratitude not only by words but by deeds. At present, methinks, seeing that, as you have told me, you have not yet launched out into the world, there is naught that you need; but this may not be so always, for none can tell what fortune may befall him. I only say that any service I can possibly render you at any time, you have but to ask me. I am a rich man, and, having no son, my daughter is my only heir. Had your estate been different and your taste turned towards trade, I could have put you in the way of becoming like myself, foreign merchants; but even in your own profession of arms I may be of assistance.

"Should you go to the war later on and wish to take a strong following with you, you have but to come to me and say how much it will cost to arm and equip them and I will forthwith defray it, and my pleasure in doing so will be greater than yours in being able to follow the king with a goodly array of fighting men. One thing, at least, you must permit me to do when the time comes that you are to make your first essay in arms: it will be my pleasure and pride to furnish you with horse, arms, and armour. This, however, is a small matter. What I really wish you to believe is that under all circumstances-and one cannot say what will happen during the present troubles-you can rely upon me absolutely."

"We thank you most heartily, sir," Edgar said, "and should the time come when, as you say, circumstances may occur in which we can take advantage of your most generous offers, we will do so."

"That is well and loyally said," the merchant replied, "and I shall hold you to it. You will remember that, by so doing, it will be you who confer the favour and not I, for my wife and I will always be uneasy in our minds until we can do something at least towards proving our gratitude for the service that you have rendered."

A few minutes later, after taking leave of the merchant's wife and daughter, the two friends left the house.

"Truly we have been royally entertained, Edgar. What luxury and comfort, and yet everything quiet and in good taste. The apartments of the king himself are cold and bare in comparison. I felt half inclined to embrace his offer and to declare that I would fain become a trader like himself."

Edgar laughed, "Who ever heard of such a thing as the son of a valiant knight going into trade? Why the bare thought of such a thing would make Sir Ralph's hair stand on end. You would even shock your gentle mother."

"But why should it, Edgar? In Italy the nobles are traders, and no one thinks it a dishonour. Why should not a peaceful trade be held in as high esteem as fighting?"

"That I cannot say, Albert," Edgar replied, more seriously; "but whatever may be the case in Venice, it assuredly is not so here. It may be that some day when we reach as high a civilization as Genoa and Venice possess, trade may here be viewed as it is there-as honourable for even those of the highest birth. Surely commerce requires far more brains and wisdom than the dealing of blows, and the merchants of Venice can fight as earnestly as they can trade. Still, no one man can stand against public opinion, and until trade comes to be generally viewed as being as honourable a calling as that of war, men of gentle blood will not enter upon it; and you must remember, Albert, that it is but the exceptions who can gain such wealth as that of our host to-day, and that had you gone into the house of one of the many who can only earn a subsistence from it, you would not have been so entertained. But, of course, you are not serious, Albert."

"Not serious in thinking of being a trader, Edgar, though methinks the life would suit me well; but quite serious in not seeing why knights and nobles should look down upon traders."

"There I quite agree with you; but as my father said to me, 'You must not think, Edgar, that you can set yourself up and judge others according to your own ideas.' We were especially speaking then of the freeing of the serfs and the bettering of their condition. 'These things,' he said, 'will come assuredly when the general opinion is ripe for them, but those who first advocate changes are ever looked upon as dreamers, if not as seditious and dangerous persons, and to force on a thing before the world is fit for it is to do harm rather than good. Theoretically, there is as much to be said for the views of the priest Jack Straw and other agitators, as for those of Wickcliffe; but their opinions will at first bring persecution and maybe death to those who hold them. These peasants will rise in arms, and will, when the affair is over-should they escape with their lives-find their condition even worse than before; while the followers of Wickcliffe will have the whole power of the Church against them, and may suffer persecution and even death, besides being often viewed with grave disfavour even by their families for taking up with strange doctrines.'"

"No doubt that is so, Edgar, but I wish I lived in days when it were not deemed necessary that one of gentle blood should be either a fighting man or a priest."

In the time of Richard II. it was not considered in any way misdemeaning to receive a present for services rendered-a chain of gold, arms and armour, and even purses of money were so received with as little hesitation as were ransoms for prisoners taken in battle. Therefore Sir Ralph expressed himself as much pleased when he heard of the merchant's promise to present their military outfit to the two lads, and of his proffer of other services.

"By St. George," he said, "such good fortune never befell me, although I have been fighting since my youth. I have, it is true, earned many a heavy ransom from prisoners taken in battle, but that was a matter of business. The gold chain I wear was a present from the Black Prince, and I do not say that I have not received some presents in my time from merchants whose property I have rescued from marauders, or to whom I have rendered other service. Still, I know not of any one piece of good fortune that equals yours, and truly I myself have no small satisfaction in it, for I have wondered sometimes where the sums would have come from to furnish Albert with suitable armour and horse, which he must have if he is to ride in the train of a noble. In truth, I shall be glad to see this merchant of yours, and maybe his daughter will be a nice companion for Aline, who, not having her own pursuits here, finds it, methinks, dull. Just at present the Court has other things to think of besides pleasure."

On the following day the visit was paid, and afforded pleasure to all parties. The knight was pleased with the manners of the merchant, who, owing to his visit to Italy, had little of the formal gravity of his craft, while there was a heartiness and straightforwardness in his speech that well suited the bluff knight. The ladies were no less pleased with each other, and Dame Agatha found herself, to her surprise, chatting with her visitors on terms of equality, and discoursing on dress and fashion, the doings of the Court and life in the city, as if she had known her for years. At her mother's suggestion Aline went with Ursula into the garden, and from time to time their merry laughter could be heard through the open window.

"I hope that you will allow your daughter to come and see mine sometimes," the dame said, as her guest rose to leave. "When at home the girl has her horse and dogs, her garden, and her household duties to occupy her. Here she has naught to do save to sit and embroider, and to have a girl friend would be a great pleasure to her."

"Ursula will be very glad to do so, and I trust that you will allow your daughter sometimes to come to us. I will always send her back under good escort."

Every day rendered the political situation more serious. The Kentish rising daily assumed larger proportions, and was swollen by a great number of the Essex men, who crossed the river and joined them; and one morning the news came that a hundred thousand men were gathered on Blackheath, the Kentish men having been joined not only by those of Essex, but by many from Sussex, Herts, Cambridge, Suffolk, and Norfolk. These were not under one chief leader, but the men from each locality had their own captain. These were Wat the Tyler, William Raw, Jack Sheppard, Tom Milner, and Hob Carter.

"Things are coming to a pass indeed," Sir Ralph said, angrily, as he returned from the Tower late one afternoon. "What think you, this rabble has had the insolence to stop the king's mother, as with her retinue she was journeying hither. Methought that there was not an Englishman who did not hold the widow of the Black Prince in honour, and yet the scurvy knaves stopped her. It is true that they shouted a greeting to her, but they would not let her pass until she had consented to kiss some of their unwashed faces. And, in faith, seeing that her life would have been in danger did she refuse, she was forced to consent to this humiliation.

"By St. George, it makes my blood boil to think of it; and here, while such things are going on, we are doing naught. Even the city does not call out its bands, nor is there any preparation made to meet the storm. All profess to believe that these fellows mean no harm, and will be put off with a few soft words, forgetful of what happened in France when the peasants rose, and that these rascals have already put to death some score of judges, lawyers, and wealthy people. However, when the princess arrived with the news, even the king's councillors concluded that something must be done, and I am to ride, with five other knights, at six to-morrow morning, to Blackheath, to ask these rascals, in the name of the king, what it is that they would have, and to promise them that their requests shall be carefully considered."

At nine the next morning the knight returned.

"What news, Sir Ralph?" Dame Agatha asked, as he entered. "How have you sped with your mission?"

"In truth, we have not sped at all. The pestilent knaves refused to have aught to say to us, but bade us return and tell the king that it was with him that they would have speech, and that it was altogether useless his sending out others to talk for him; he himself must come. 'Tis past all bearing. Never did I see such a gathering of ragged rascals; not one of them, I verily believe, has as much as washed his face since they started from home. I scarce thought that all England could have turned out such a gathering. Let me have some bread and wine, and such meat as you have ready. There is to be a council in half an hour, and I must be there. There is no saying what advice some of these poor-spirited courtiers may give."

"What will be your counsel, Sir Ralph?"

"My counsel will be that the king should mount with what knights he may have, and a couple of score of men-at-arms, and should ride to Oxford, send out summonses to his nobles to gather there with their vassals, and then come and talk with these rebels, and in such fashion as they could best understand. They may have grievances, but this is not the way to urge them, by gathering in arms, murdering numbers of honourable men, insulting the king's mother, burning deeds and records, and now demanding that the king himself should wait on their scurvy majesties. Yet I know that there will be some of these time-servers round the king who will advise him to intrust himself to these rascals who have insulted his mother.

"By my faith, were there but a couple of score of my old companions here, we would don our armour, mount our warhorses, and ride at them. It may be that we should be slain, but before that came about we would make such slaughter of them that they would think twice before they took another step towards London."

"It was as I expected," the knight said, when he returned from the council. "The majority were in favour of the king yielding to these knaves and placing himself in their power, but the archbishop of Canterbury, and Hales the treasurer, and I, withstood them so hotly that the king yielded to us, but not until I had charged them with treachery, and with wishing to imperil the king's life for the safety of their own skins. De Vere and I might have come to blows had it not been for the king's presence."

"Then what was the final decision of the council, Sir Ralph?" his wife asked.

"It was a sort of compromise," the knight said. "One which pleased me not, but which at any rate will save the king from insult. He will send a messenger to-day to them saying that he will proceed to-morrow in his barge to Rotherhithe, and will there hold converse with them. He intends not to disembark, but to parley with them from the boat, and he will, at least in that way, be safe from assault. I hear that another great body of the Essex, Herts, Norfolk, and Suffolk rebels have arrived on the bank opposite Greenwich, and that it is their purpose, while those of Blackheath enter the city from Southwark, to march straight hitherwards, so that we shall be altogether encompassed by them."

"But the citizens will surely never let them cross the bridge?"

"I know not," the knight said, gloomily. "The lord mayor had audience with the king this morning, and confessed to him that, although he and all the better class of citizens would gladly oppose the rioters to the last, and suffer none to enter the walls, that great numbers of the lower class were in favour of these fellows, and that it might be that they would altogether get the better of them, and make common cause with the rabble. Many of these people have been out to Blackheath; some have stayed there with the mob, while others have brought back news of their doings. Among the rabble on Blackheath are many hedge priests; notably, I hear, one John Ball, a pestilent knave, who preaches treason to them, and tells them that as all men are equal, so all the goods of those of the better class should be divided among those having nothing, a doctrine which pleases the rascals mightily."

The next day, accordingly, the king went down with some of his councillors to Rotherhithe. A vast crowd lined both banks of the river, and saluted him with such yells and shouts, that those with him, fearing the people might put off in boats and attack him, bade the rowers turn the boat's head and make up the river again; and, fortunately, the tide being just on the turn, they were thus able to keep their course in the middle of the river, and so escape any arrows that might otherwise have been shot at them.

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