Oxford, Spring 1353
As for those of us who survived, every day is precious. To come awake in the morning – whether the sky is tranquil blue or thunderous grey – is an incomprehensible joy. I live! But such joyful thoughts are soon clouded by remembrance of those who have crossed that dark threshold, whose voices we shall never hear again, whose very faces are fading from our memory, slipping away like sad ghosts. Except, of course, when they have left living reminders.
‘Papa!’ Alysoun landed on my stomach, expelling all my breath, and proceeded to jump up and down, in case I might still have some air left in my lungs. ‘May I have a puppy? Jonathan Baker has six, and he says if he cannot find homes for them, his father will drown them all in the Cherwell. You would not let the little puppies drown, Papa, would you?’
Her tone combined diplomacy with wheedling. Truly, there had been very few dogs in Oxford since the pestilence, when every single one that could be caught by the town authorities was slain, for fear of spreading the killing plague.
‘I am sure,’ I said, shoving her off and struggling to sit up, ‘that Jonathan and John Baker will have no difficulty in finding homes for all their puppies.’
The bed was so vast, now that I occupied it alone.
Alysoun sat up, hugging her knees, and gazed at me appealingly, but remained leaning on my stomach. Sometimes I can scarcely bear to look at her, she is so like.
‘What does your aunt say?’ I asked, cowardly.
‘She said I must ask you.’
Of course. All unpleasant decisions are referred to me. My sister decides everything else.
‘And besides,’ I said, ‘it is hardly past dawn. Has Jonathan been here already?’
She clasped her hands together and looked at me piteously. Tears had welled up in her eyes. ‘He must know today, else John Baker will drown them this very afternoon.’
‘Off with you. Let me dress,’ I said briskly. ‘Then I will think on’t.’
I already knew what my decision would be. Almost certainly, so did Alysoun.
She ran off, shouting. ‘Rafe, Rafe, Papa says he’ll think on’t.’
I fumbled as I straightened my hose and tied my points. What would we do with a dog? Nay, a puppy? It would be underfoot. It would make puddles everywhere, to Margaret’s fury. Almost certainly it would chew my supplies of parchment to rags, and if it were to find my precious books . . . Nay, it was impossible.
Margaret took one look at me as I entered the kitchen, her mouth pursed in disapproval as she thumped a mug of small ale down beside a plate of bread still warm from the oven. My sister will not buy baker’s bread, for she swears they eke it out with chalk and chopped straw, even though this means she must prepare the dough every night before bed, then rise before dawn to bake it.
‘Why do you give me that look?’ I said, as I pulled out a stool and sat at the table. I took a long draught of the ale, pretending indifference, but in the face of her speaking silence, I could not help myself. ‘What have I done?’
‘It is not what you have done, it is what you are going to do.’
She cut the thinnest possible slice of cheese and laid it next to my bread.
‘I cannot have a puppy under my feet all day, tripping me up, making a dirty mess. It must needs be shut out of the shop, so I shall be left to care for it.’
‘I have only said I will think on’t.’
She stomped out to the pantry. Even her footsteps spoke volumes. I began to break my fast. The bread, as always, was light-textured and nutty, but while she was out of the kitchen I reached over and cut myself more cheese.
‘I saw that.’
I laughed. Margaret cannot sustain her annoyance for long.
‘You would not begrudge me a morsel of cheese, Meg. I shall have a long day in the shop today, and this evening I must walk out to Yardley’s farm for goose feathers. A man must keep up his strength.’
She pulled out another stool and sat down opposite me.
‘Nicholas, I know it is difficult for you to refuse Alysoun anything. She grows more like Elizabeth every day. But she is not Elizabeth. And is a puppy the best thing for her?’
‘She is tender hearted, and she grieves that John Baker will drown the puppies.’
Margaret sniffed. ‘Unlikely. There’s many folk in Oxford will be glad of a dog. Since the plague, thieves have had a fine time of it, with scarce a dog guarding any man’s house.’
‘And shall we not have a dog to guard our house?’
I was conscious of scoring a point, but Margaret waved my words away. ‘In the meantime, there will be puddles on my floors.’
I glanced down at the slabs of golden local stone which formed the floors at street level of both house and shop. My father-in-law, their original builder, had a healthy fear of fire, when so much of his stock was vulnerable. Even the roof was one of the few town houses not to be thatched, but roofed with slates, like the colleges of the university. He had told me that he had made an exchange with Merton College, trading a fine copy of Aristotle’s Ethics for enough of their tiles to roof this building.
Margaret kept the floors swept and scrubbed daily, so I could understand her concern.
‘When we were children, I don’t remember it taking long to train the dogs.’
‘They spent most of their time outdoors on the farm. This creature will be a house dog.’
I reached across the table and took both of her hands in mine.
‘I think she needs something to love, Meg.’
She looked down at our joined hands, then raised her face to me. There were unshed tears in her eyes.
‘Aye, well, I suppose we all do. And we have already lost enough. Very well.’
I gave her hands a squeeze, then leaned across and kissed the top of her head, tightly swathed as usual in a spotless white wimple.
‘I will tell her.’
I drained my mug and carried the last of my bread and cheese out into the garden, where I could hear the children’s shouts. Alysoun was sitting astride a low branch of one of the apple trees, while Rafe danced about at the base of the trunk.
‘Help me up, Aly. I can’t reach!’
For a moment a flash of memory seized me – myself running after Margaret, crying, ‘Wait for me!’ But Margaret was five years my senior, while Alysoun and Rafe were but two years apart. It made a difference. And maidens grow up much more swiftly than lads. I can barely remember a time when Margaret did not seem to me to be one of the adults. When she was married off at fourteen I was nine, just three years older than Alysoun now. My sister and I had not lived in the same house again until four years ago, after the pestilence took my Elizabeth and Margaret’s brute of a husband, the ill-named innkeeper Elias Makepeace.
In her heart, I knew that Margaret had found the death of her husband a release, after twelve years of drunken beatings, but then the plague had also taken her two children. She was brisk and kind to my children, but a haunted look came sometimes into her eyes when she looked at them. I could see her wondering how it might have been, had her sons still been with us, four years on.
For those of us who survived, there remained a lingering fear of ever allowing ourselves to love anyone again, so fragile is life, so terrifying the sudden loss. We walk on a cliff edge, averting our eyes from the precipitous drop on to the jagged rocks below.
‘Well, Alysoun, shall we go to John Baker’s and look at these puppies?’
She gave a squeal and threw herself off the branch. There was the sound of ripping cloth. Margaret would have something else to lay at my door. A cascade of petals followed Alysoun like an unseasonable snowfall, lingering in her hair. I let them lie.
‘Me too,’ Rafe begged, tugging at the hem of my cotte.
‘Aye,’ I said, ‘you may come too. We must choose a puppy who will be right for all the family.’
We walked back through the kitchen, where Margaret studiously turned her back on us, then along the passageway with its doors to Margaret’s stillroom and the storeroom where I kept my stock of parchment, ink, and quills. The whole front of the building on the ground floor was taken up by the shop, dim now, as I had not yet opened the shutters. Motes of dust danced in the thin shafts of light thrusting through the cracks, for the shop faced south and already the sun was bright.
I nearly fell over the small boy sitting hunched on the doorstep.
‘Jonathan,’ I said, ‘what do you here?’
He stood up and scrubbed a hand across his face, leaving it smeared. His clothes were ragged, though his father was not poor. John Baker, like me, was a widower, but had no sister to keep house for him and mind his child.
‘I was waiting to hear whether Alysoun might have a puppy, maister. My papa is going to drown them.’
‘Nonsense,’ I said briskly. ‘How many are there?’
‘I am sure you can find homes for them all. I am going to Yardley’s farm today. I will ask there. And have you thought to ask at the mills? Your Jewel is a fine ratter. If her puppies are as good, any of the millers will be glad of one, to keep the rats from the grain.’
His face brightened at once. ‘I’ll go to Trill Mill and Blackfriars now.’ He turned to run back up the High Street toward Carfax.
‘There’s Holywell Mill as well,’ I called after him.
‘Aye, but I know the miller at Trill’s,’ he shouted back over his shoulder. His bare feet slapped on the dried mud of the street.
Alysoun slipped her hand in mine. ‘That was well thought on, Papa.’
I smiled down at her. ‘The rats have become a plague of their own, and the millers lose much of their grain.’
The slaughter of Oxford’s dogs and cats had been well intentioned, but the result had been an explosion in the town’s population of rats, with few surviving predators to keep them down, only those whose owners – like John Baker – had kept them hidden away. He claimed he had done so in order to protect his flour from those same rats, but beneath his rough manner he was a good man, more soft-hearted than he would wish you to know, even if Margaret suspected the contents of his loaves. In his own way, he loved the dog Jewel, and I could not truly believe he would drown her puppies.
The bakehouse was across the High Street from our shop, but a little further west, three doors from Tackley’s inn, where I had first lodged when I came to Oxford as a fourteen-year-old student. Both lay just outside our parish of St-Peter-in-the-East, falling within the neighbouring parish of St Mary the Virgin, the university church, an excellent location for a bakehouse. When we arrived, John had already lowered his counter flap, open to the street, and laid out loaves and buns. People buy their bread early, and the heady scent of fresh baking was drifting out into the High. There was a small crowd outside the bakehouse, so we waited until John had served his customers. He looked up and saw us.
‘Good morrow, Nicholas. Have you come for bread?’ He raised an ironic eyebrow as he leaned across the counter.
‘Nay, I am persuaded by these children, yours and mine, that you are seeking homes for Jewel’s puppies.’
‘Aye. They needs must go. I cannot give houseroom to seven dogs. They’re for the river today, any that do not find homes.’
‘You do not mean that.’
‘I do. With the pittance the colleges pay for their bread, I can barely keep myself and my son.’
It was an old grievance, and I had no wish to listen to a catalogue of his woes. ‘Where are these puppies, then? I may take one of them.’
‘Where’s that son of mine? He can show you. I need to mind the shop.’
Alysoun slipped through the open door into the bakery. ‘Jonathan is gone to see whether any of the millers will take a puppy.’
‘That’s well thought.’
‘My papa thought of it.’
John grinned at me. ‘Come you through, then. They are in the shed at the back. The children know the way. Take one if you want one.’
‘Are they weaned?’ I said, as I walked into the warm yeasty air of John’s shop.
‘Near enough. They’ve eaten some bread and broth. They can leave their dam.’
I thought it cruel to take the puppies from their mother if they were not fully weaned, but I was unsure whether John was serious in his intention to drown them.
The shop was also the bakehouse, with its sacks of different flours, from the finest white for gentlemen’s wastel bread down to coarse mixed grains for maslin. The kneading troughs were scoured clean, for however untidy the rest of his dwelling, John must keep the bakehouse clean or be closed down by the town assessors. The ovens were still hot, and row upon row of loaves stood upon the shelves. John threw open the door at the back of the shop, the light catching the dusting of flour on his strong forearms. A baker develops muscles to rival those of a wrestler.
‘Will you not keep one of the puppies yourself?’ I said. ‘To train up as a ratter?’
‘Mayhap. I have not decided.’
We followed him along the passage to a small, untidy kitchen. The building was laid out much as our own, but lacked Margaret’s firm hand. Like ours, the kitchen opened directly on to the garden.
‘There.’ John pointed to a shed halfway down the ill-kept garden. ‘Take as many as you want.’
I saw Alysoun’s eyes light up. ‘One will be quite sufficient,’ I said hastily. ‘I have not decided whether I will take one at all, not until I have seen if they are healthy.’
‘Papa!’ Alysoun’s face was tragic, but John merely grinned.
‘Aye, they’re strong and healthy. Jewel has nursed them well. ’Tis not her first litter, after all.’
The previous litter had been amongst the last of Oxford’s dogs to be killed, thrown heedless into the Canditch with the other corpses of cats and dogs, and the occasional plague victim, who had died from home and tumbled in.
‘Who’s the sire?’ I asked.
The baker shrugged. ‘Who knows? She found a dog somewhere, or he found her. Some kind of spaniel, I’m thinking. You’ll see.’
The shed door was partially ajar, sending a band of sunlight on to the heap of dogs inside. Jewel looked up at us and thumped her tail, but the puppies, curled up together, never opened their eyes. I saw at once what John meant. The puppies – all but one – had the long floppy ears of spaniels. The odd one looked mostly terrier, like their dam.
‘If I keep one,’ John said, pointing at the terrier pup, ‘it will be that one. If the sire is some gentleman’s hunting spaniel, the others will have the instinct to retrieve, not kill. I’ll have a house full of live rats.’
I laughed. ‘Best not say that to the millers.’
My suspicion had been right. John could not bring himself to drown the whole litter. We had all of us seen enough death to last a lifetime.
Alysoun had thrown herself down to kneel in the straw, and was stroking Jewel’s head. ‘We won’t hurt your babies,’ she whispered.
Rafe squatted down next to her and was regarding the puppies with awe, his finger in his mouth. I realised with a sharp stab that neither of them had ever seen a litter of puppies before. On our family farm, where Margaret and I had grown up, there had been at least one new litter every year.
‘May I pick one up?’ Alysoun looked over her shoulder at John.
‘Of course, my maid. Which do you like best?’
‘This one.’ She lifted one of the smallest and cradled it under her chin. The puppy opened its eyes and yawned, showing its small milk teeth. Apart from a faint squeak when it was pulled out of the warm bundle of the litter, it seems not to mind being held.
‘Isn’t he beautiful, Papa?’
‘Let me see.’ I took the puppy from her. Despite its small size it was a good weight, the stomach well rounded. The fur was glossy and healthy, the eyes clear, the long ears free of mites.
‘It’s a girl, Alysoun. Did you want a boy?’
‘Nay, I want this one! ’Tis no matter whether it be girl or boy.’
‘Rafe,’ I said, ‘what do you think? Shall we have this one?’
As the youngest in the family, his opinion was rarely regarded. He reached out a hand and patted the puppy hesitantly. ‘Aye,’ he said.
‘That is settled then.’ I turned to John, who nodded.
‘Take it, and my thanks. One less to drown.’
Alysoun turned a shocked face to him. ‘You will wait until Jonathan speaks to the millers, will you not, Master Baker?’
‘Aye, my maid.’
‘And Papa will ask at Yardley’s farm this afternoon.’ She bent down and whispered to Jewel, who did not seem distressed that we were taking away one of her young.
‘Off to Yardley’s, are you?’ John led us back to the shop, where customers were gathering again. ‘Goose feathers?’
‘Aye. I’ll ask. They may need a dog. God go with ’ee, John. Time I opened the shop.’
I carried the puppy as we crossed the High Street, the children running ahead to open the door, shouting to Margaret.
My two scriveners were already in the shop, but showed no sign of starting work. I bit down my annoyance. They knew their tasks for the day and did not need me to repeat my instructions of the night before. Walter Blunt, the older man, had the grace to look somewhat guilty and began making much of laying out his writing materials and taking out the exemplar of the Logica: Ut Dixit, from which he must copy out two peciae today. Each section, each pecia, consisted of sixteen pages, and he should be able to complete the work within the day. He was writing on paper, producing a plain copy for students to rent. No fine penmanship or parchment was required.
Roger Pigot was another matter. Two years younger than I, he was as insolent as a bejant student of fourteen or fifteen. I would not have employed him, save for the fact that he had a very fine hand. He was working his way through a copy of a French tale of Robin Hood, writing on parchment and decorating the margins with flowing vines and flowers. He was no great artist, but he could design a pretty illuminated capital for the start of each section, good enough for the merchant’s wife who had commissioned the work.
‘Roger,’ I said sharply, ‘why are you idling about? Get you to work.’
Before he could return an impudent answer, I hurried through to the house with the children and the puppy, who was fully awake now and squirming in my hands. I set her down in the middle of the kitchen floor, where she looked about her with interest, then squatted down in a posture which was immediately recognisable. Before I could bundle her outside, a yellow puddle had spread out across the floor. The puppy stood up and sniffed it with interest.
‘Alysoun,’ I said, ‘put her out in the garden at once. She has to learn that she must relieve herself there, not in your aunt’s kitchen.’
I looked around helplessly for a rag to wipe the floor, but before I could find one, Margaret came in, passing Alysoun and giving the puppy a sour look.
‘What did I tell you, Nicholas? Nay, not that cloth. I use that one to polish the knives and spoons.’ She snatched away the cloth I had reached for. ‘Away with you and mind your shop. I will deal with this.’
I turned and fled, feeling somewhat like a scolded puppy myself and relieved to be away from the drama of a sullied kitchen. In the shop I was master, but not always, I fear, in the house.
Walter had opened the shutters and was already at work, his quill moving rapidly over the rough paper, though he muttered under his breath from time to time as the tip caught. It could not be helped. I could not afford parchment for the peciae the students rented. And if the paper came back creased or torn, I had to fine them a farthing for minor damage, a ha’penny for worse.
Roger was still laying out a selection of quills and brushes, and went now to fetch the coloured inks he would use for decorations. The simpler ones I made myself, invading Margaret’s stillroom to do so, but the more expensive, like the lapis blue, I bought in small quantities from the painter’s merchant who supplied the local monasteries and friaries, as well as those colleges which employed their own illuminators. I had caught Roger the previous month trying to steal some of the precious blue, no doubt to sell, and he was under warning. Since then I had fixed a padlock to the storeroom door, which I now unlocked for him. He glowered at me through the heavy fringe of greasy hair which fell over his face, but I ignored him. I needed him to finish the French book so I could sell it and recover the cost of the particularly fine parchment on which it was being written.
Unlike almost all the other shops on the High Street, mine did not let down a shutter across the bottom of the window to form a counter into the street, on which to display items for sale. The goods I sold were much too delicate to expose to a dust-laden wind or to the risk of a sudden shower. However, once the shutters over the wide window in the shop front were opened, passersby could easily see the rack of secondhand books laid out on view, a safe distance inside. It was one of my obligations, having sworn the oath to become an official stationarius and librarius for the university, to display all secondhand books prominently. I was also restricted as to how much profit I might make on them. Moreover, the university fixed the rental price paid by students for the peciae of their essential study texts.
It was irksome, but the position of official bookseller to the university had the advantage of bringing in a regular income. As for any private commissions I undertook, like the French book, I could charge whatever I pleased. In the first years after the plague, when half the students and masters had perished, I often wondered whether we would have enough to live on, Margaret and the children and I. Even, I thought of returning to the family farm, but with my cousin Edmond now in possession, since the death of my father and elder brother, I put it off from day to day. Somehow, the university had survived. More students had arrived. A few masters, who had gone to teach in Paris or Bologna or Prague, returned to Oxford, as though those fearful years of plague had driven them to seek the comfort of their own country.
When Roger had finally settled to his work, I began to unpack a barrel of books which I had stored the previous day under the counter where I wrote my bills of sale and did my accounts. A widow from Banbury, who could not read, had brought her late husband’s small library to me for valuation.
‘They’re no mortal use to me, Master Elyot,’ she had said, wiping her eyes on the trailing hem of her sleeve, ‘but my Edward set a great store by them. Learned to read with the monks of Abingdon, he did, like a proper cleric. Now I hope they will keep me and my daughter, for she had the pestilence and it has left her deaf. I’ll not find a husband for her.’
The girl, standing shyly behind her mother, had been pretty once, but the scars left by illness marred her appearance now. Her face spoiled and her hearing gone, she might well fail to find a husband. When her mother died, how would she fare? Such afflicted souls have a poor time of it. Yet if she had a dowry – which these books could provide – some man might be glad of her, perhaps a widower like me, but left with a large brood of children and no sister to come to his aid. A second wife to care for his young ones might be forgiven her disfigurement. I would give the widow the best price I could for the books, but I must not lose money. I had my own family to support, and no income but this shop.
‘When you finish that page, Walter,’ I said, ‘come and help me assess these books.’
He nodded, but did not raise his eyes from his writing.
Walter had worked for my father-in-law, Humphrey Hadley, for ten years before I married Elizabeth and joined the business, and he was as shrewd a judge of the value of a book as you could wish. When Elizabeth’s father died in the very first month of the plague, he bequeathed the property and the business to us, and we had been glad of Walter’s assistance as we struggled to carry on through those black months. The plague was dwindling away as Elizabeth came near her time with Rafe and I dared to hope that we would all survive, but the birth had weakened her. Rafe was but two weeks old when she was struck down and died three days later. By then the horrors of the mass graves were over, and I was able to bury her decently in St Peter’s churchyard. Without Walter in the dark days after her death, neither I nor the business could have continued.
I laid out the books in a row on the table, six of them, varying in quality. Walter came to stand beside me and immediately picked up one.
‘This is a very fine bestiary, Master Elyot,’ he said.
‘Aye, I noticed it last night. It has been well read and the spine is just a very little worn, but otherwise it is in excellent condition.’
He turned over the pages. ‘The colours are still very fresh.’ He held the book open for me to see. The picture showed a strange animal with a horn growing from its forehead, a scaly hide, and cloven hooves. It was like no animal I had ever seen, either in the flesh or in a book, but it was exquisitely done, every blade of grass and daisy under the creature’s feet picked out with care, a knowing gleam shining from its eye.
Roger abandoned his work and came to peer over Walter’s shoulder. I did not send him back to his desk. Let him study the work of a real artist. Perhaps he would then be less arrogant about his own modest skills.
‘I should be able to give her a good price for that,’ I said, dipping a quill in my ink pot and scribbling figures on a scrap of paper. ‘There is a Regent Master at Gloucester College who is interested in such books. I think he would pay well for it. The rest are not so valuable.’
I looked them over. Most were in fairly good condition, all except Boethius’s Arithmetic, probably left from the owner’s time as a schoolboy with the monks of Abingdon. Still, I would have no trouble selling that, for a modest price, to one of the young students newly arrived in Oxford. There was a collection of tales – Robin Hood again (shorter, and in English), Sir Bevis of Hampton, Arthur and Guinevere, Floris and Blauncheflur, Sir Galahad. Originally they had been separate small books, but at some time in the past (not recently, I thought) they had been bound together. This had necessitated trimming some of the pages to fit, which gave the book a somewhat ragged appearance, but such tales are also easy to sell. I would try the merchant’s wife who had commissioned the French book.
There was a book of husbandry, another slim volume recounting the stories of classical heroes, and a useful volume of rhetoric topics, such as students use – I had one myself. I thought that the owner of these books had once had aspirations to become a scholar.
Between us, Walter and I arrived at what we reckoned was a fair price for the six books, and I wrote a message to the widow, which I would send with the next carter travelling to Banbury. Once she agreed to my offer I would contact the master at Gloucester College and the merchant’s wife. The remaining four books would join the others on my secondhand shelf.
When the students emerged from their morning lectures, the shop became busy as they crowded in to buy writing materials. Two of the older students came to return peciae of Aristotle’s Metaphysics and Boethius’s Music. Both students had completed the fundamental course of the Trivium – Grammar, Logic, and Rhetoric – and were now studying the more advanced Quadrivium – Geometry, Music, Arithmetic and Astronomy, which also included additional reading in Philosophy. One of the students I knew quite well, William Farringdon, for he had once worked for me briefly and lodged at Hart Hall, where my friend Jordain Brinkylsworth was Warden. Jordain had told me only last week that he was worried about the lad, who seemed unusually distracted and inattentive in lectures, and lost his way in propounding his argument in the obligatory debates.
‘A model student until now, Nicholas,’ he said, ‘but something is troubling him. He will not confide in me, but merely shakes his head and swears that nothing is amiss.’
I sometimes teased Jordain that he was as anxious as a mother hen over his charges, but I had seen that this time he was genuinely worried.
Looking closely at William Farringdon now, I saw that he was very pale and nervous, plucking at the neck of his shirt and glancing from time to time over his shoulder. However, if he would not admit his troubles to Jordain, he was not likely to tell me, a comparative stranger. There was a fresh ink blot on one of the pages of the pecia of the Boethius that he was returning, but I decided to ignore it. I saw him watching me from the corner of his eye as I inspected the document, and also saw his look of relief as I turned over the damaged page without comment.
Perhaps the lad had money troubles. It would not be surprising. Many Oxford students came from the families of small country gentry, who had suffered a great deal as a result of the pestilence, not only from deaths in their own families but from widespread deaths amongst the villeins and small tenant farmers who worked their land. Lacking the labour of the former and the rents of the latter, many of these families found themselves almost beggared. My own family was of yeoman stock, but we too had suffered financial loss.
I always closed the shop over the dinner hour, when the students would go back to their halls. It gave me the chance to eat my own dinner with my family, while my scriveners took themselves off to a tavern, usually Tackley’s since it was nearest. It seemed the new puppy had won praise for performing liberally in the garden and had not yet sullied Margaret’s clean floor a second time.
‘And have you found a name for her yet?’ I asked, after saying grace over our meal of mutton pottage.
‘Rafe wanted Isolde, from that story you told us,’ Alysoun said, ‘but I told him it was too sad.’
Margaret raised her eyebrows at me.
‘It was a very . . . simple version of the tale,’ I reassured her.
Alysoun had heard of Tristram and Isolde from her older cousin, Edmond’s daughter, the last time we had visited the farm, and had pestered me until I recounted a version suitable for children. Edmond’s daughter was fifteen and a romantic.
‘Aye.’ I nodded. ‘’Tis a sad name. Have you thought on one yourself, Alysoun?’
‘I can only think on boys’ names for dogs – Valiant, Holdfast, Gripper.’
We all looked at the puppy, who was curled up near the hearth, despite the warmth of the spring day. I could have sworn her stomach was rounder than it had been. Perhaps Margaret had softened enough to give the mite some food. As if she felt our eyes on her, the puppy sat up suddenly, cocking her head to one side.
‘I agree,’ I said. ‘She does not look like a Valiant or a Holdfast or a Gripper. Or even a Boarsdeath or a Stagkiller.’
They laughed as the puppy got to her feet and waddled over to us, with a look of enquiry on her face.
‘Perhaps she is a Rowan,’ I said, ‘for although her coat is golden it has a reddish touch when the light catches it, like ripe rowan berries.’
The puppy sidled up to me and nuzzled against the back of my knee.
‘Aye!’ Alysoun was delighted. ‘She knows her name already. Rowan it shall be.’
‘Then the first thing you must teach her is to come to her name. Take her into the garden and reward her every time she comes when called. I expect your aunt has some ends of stale bread you may give her.’
‘After you have eaten!’ Margaret said severely.
The shop was quiet that afternoon, so I decided to walk out to Yardley’s farm earlier than I had intended, leaving Walter in charge. He had almost finished the two peciae when I left, and Roger had written and nearly decorated three pages, which was a good day’s work for him.
My route took me out of the East Gate by the end of the Canditch, then past a huddled row of cottages built just beyond the town wall, before I passed the hospital of St John. I crossed the Cherwell by the East Bridge, a trembling wooden structure that needed constant shoring up after the winter floods had come roaring down the river. It lay outside the town’s jurisdiction and the maintenance of the bridge was a matter of constant dispute between the hospital and the other neighbouring landowners. Today it quaked under my feet and I wondered, not for the first time, how it withstood the traffic of beasts and carts coming in from the farms lying east of Oxford. The road led on, up over Shotover Hill and eventually to London, which I had visited just once on business for my father-in-law.
Today, however, I turned off along the narrow dirt track between hedges which led to Yardley’s farm. On either side the last of the blossom lingered on the blackthorn, while the small wild crab apples and the bullaces were in full bloom. It felt like walking under a bridal arch. Elizabeth and I had stepped out from the door of St Peter’s under branches of May blossom at this very season, seven years ago. My mother had come, but my father had refused to attend our wedding, holding it as a grievance against me that I had cast aside my years of schooling and the chance to rise, perhaps, as a cleric in the royal service, all to marry (as he put it) some shopkeeper’s wench.
I could hear Yardley’s farm before I reached it. Although Thomas Yardley had the usual milch cows, a pig or two, and a small flock of Cotswold sheep, his real love was poultry. I had never been there at dawn, but the roosters’ greeting of the day must have been enough to wake folk halfway up the hill. No thief would ever dare attempt the farm, for his geese were as noisy as a pack of hounds and twice as vicious. I stood safely on the far side of the gate and shouted for Thomas.
He came ambling across the yard, impervious to the geese, who made no attempt to attack him, probably the only creature on two legs or four who was safe from them.
‘Come for your goose feathers, Master Elyot? I’ve a sack put ready for you. Come you in-by.’
‘Hmm,’ I said, ‘the geese?’
‘Oh, aye.’ He made a vague waving gesture which the geese seemed to understand, for they drew back a foot or so as I stepped cautiously through the gate. Thomas led me to the barn, where he had the feathers ready for me in a small sack.
‘Have you no dog nowadays, Thomas?’ I said, as I counted out the agreed money.
‘Nay.’ He spat on to the straw-strewn floor. ‘Killed him, didn’t they? Those constables from Oxford. They’d no right, out here. I’m no part of the town of Oxford.’
‘Aye, it was bad. Should you not get another, now the plague is gone?’
‘If it has gone.’
‘It’s to be hoped so.’
He shrugged. ‘I could do with a good ratter. Them vermin get in the corn store, even in the house. One great brute tried to make off with a block of cheese, till I took a spade to ’un.’
‘I know of some pups looking for homes. The dam is a prize ratter. Just what you need.’
Before I left the farm I had a promise to take back to John Baker, that Thomas would have one of the puppies, though as I closed the gate thankfully on the malevolent stare from goose eyes, I felt a twinge of sympathy for any dog who must learn to live with them. I set off briskly back to Oxford, coming out from under the blossoming hedgerow trees to be momentarily blinded by the brightness of the setting sun full in my face.
By the time I reached the East Bridge, I was seeing dancing black spots before my eyes from the glare of the sunlight, so I paused on the bridge and turned to look down at the cool waters sliding smooth and inviting beneath. I was hot from my walk and remembered the silky pleasure of jumping naked into the river here, off the bank stretching down from the hospital wall to the river. We were strictly forbidden to swim, of course, as students under the jurisdiction of the university, but have such rules ever stopped young lads from swimming on a hot day, when they are released from their lessons?
Was that someone in the river now? My eyes were still dazzled from the low-lying sun, and I shaded them to try to see better. Whoever he was, he was not so much swimming as floating. I felt a sudden chill. The youth was not swimming, for he was fully clad. And he was not swimming, for he was dead. And I knew him. It was the student from Hart Hall. William Farringdon.