The Armourer's Prentices


Page 15 of 25


CHAPTER FIFTEEN.

HEAVE HALF A BRICK AT HIM.

"For strangers then did so increase, By reason of King Henry's queen, And privileged in many a place To dwell, as was in London seen. Poor tradesmen had small dealing then And who but strangers bore the bell, Which was a grief to Englishmen To see them here in London dwell." _Ill May Day_, by Churchill, a Contemporary Poet.

Time passed on, and Edmund Burgess, who had been sent from York to learnthe perfection of his craft, completed his term and returned to hishome, much regretted in the Dragon court, where his good humour and goodsense had generally kept the peace, both within and without.

Giles Headley was now the eldest prentice. He was in every way greatlyimproved, thoroughly accepting his position, and showing himself quiteready both to learn and to work; but he had not the will or the power ofavoiding disputes with outsiders, or turning them aside with a merryjest; and rivalries and quarrels with the armoury at the Eagle began toincrease. The Dragon, no doubt, turned out finer workmanship, and thisthe Eagle alleged was wholly owing to nefarious traffic with the oldSpanish or Moorish sorcerer in Warwick Inner Ward, a thing unworthy ofhonest Englishmen.

This made Giles furious, and the cry never failed to end in a fight, inwhich Stephen supported the cause of the one house, and George Bates andhis comrades of the other.

It was the same with even the archery at Mile End, where the butts wereerected, and the youth contended with the long bow, which was stillconsidered as the safeguard of England. King Henry often looked in onthese matches, and did honour to the winners. One match there was inespecial, on Mothering Sunday, when the champions of each guild shotagainst one another at such a range that it needed a keen eye to see thepopinjay--a stuffed bird at which they shot.

Stephen was one of these, his forest lore having always given him anadvantage over many of the others. He even was one of the last threewho were to finish the sport by shooting against one another. One was abutcher named Barlow. The other was a Walloon, the best shot among sixhundred foreigners of various nations, all of whom, though with littleencouragement, joined in the national sport on these pleasant springafternoons. The first contest threw out the Walloon, at which therewere cries of ecstasy; now the trial was between Barlow and Stephen, andin this final effort, the distance of the pole to which the popinjay wasfastened was so much increased that strength of arm told as much asaccuracy of aim, and Stephen's seventeen years' old muscles could not,after so long a strain, cope with those of Ralph Barlow, a butcher offull thirty years old. His wrist and arm began to shake with weariness,and only one of his three last arrows went straight to the mark, whileBarlow was as steady as ever, and never once failed. Stephen wasbitterly disappointed, his eyes filled with tears, and he flung himselfdown on the turf, feeling as if the shouts of "A Barlow! a Barlow!"which were led by the jovial voice of King Harry himself, were allexulting over him.

Barlow was led up to the king, who hailed him "King of Shoreditch," atitle borne by the champion archer ever after, so long as bowmanship inearnest lasted. A tankard which the king filled with silver pieces washis prize, but Henry did not forget Number 2. "Where's the otherfellow?" he said. "He was but a stripling, and to my mind, his feat wasa greater marvel than that of a stalwart fellow like Barlow."

Half a dozen of the spectators, among them the cardinal's hurried insearch of Stephen, who was roused from his fit of weariness anddisappointment by a shake of the shoulder as his uncle jingled his bellsin his ears, and exclaimed, "How now, here I own a cousin!" Stephen satup and stared with angry, astonished eyes, but only met a laugh. "Ay,ay, 'tis but striplings and fools that have tears to spend for such asthis! Up, boy! D'ye hear? The other Hal is asking for thee."

And Stephen, hastily brushing away his tears, and holding his flat capin his hand, was marshalled across the mead, hot, shy, and indignant, asthe jester mopped and mowed, and cut all sorts of antics before him,turning round to observe in an encouraging voice, "Pluck up a heart,man! One would think Hal was going to cut off thine head!" And then,on arriving where the king sat on his horse, "Here he is, Hal, such ashe is come humbly to crave thy gracious pardon for hitting the mark nobetter! He'll mend his ways, good my lord, if your grace will pardonhim this time."

"Ay, marry, and that will I," said the king. "The springald bids fairto be King of Shoreditch by the time the other fellow abdicates. Howold art thou, my lad?"

"Seventeen, an it please your grace," said Stephen, in the gruff voiceof his age.

"And thy name?"

"Stephen Birkenholt, my liege," and he wondered whether he would berecognised; but Henry only said--

"Methinks I've seen those sloe-black eyes before. Or is it only thatthe lad is thy very marrow, quipsome one?"

"The which," returned the jester, gravely, while Stephen tingled allover with dismay, "may account for the tears the lad was wasting at nothaving the thews of the fellow double his age! But I envy him not! NotI! He'll never have wit for mine office, but will come in second therelikewise."

"I dare be sworn he will," said the king. "Here, take this, my goodlad, and prank thee in it when thou art out of thy time, and goest a-hunting in Epping!"

It was a handsome belt with a broad silver clasp, engraven with theTudor rose and portcullis; and Stephen bowed low and made hisacknowledgments as best he might.

He was hailed with rapturous acclamations by his own contemporaries, whoheld that he had saved the credit of the English prentice world, andinsisted on carrying him enthroned on their shoulders back to Cheapside,in emulation of the journeymen and all the butcher kind, who were thusbearing home the King of Shoreditch.

Shouts, halloos, whistles, every jubilant noise that youth and boyhoodcould invent, were the triumphant music of Stephen on his surging anduneasy throne, as he was shifted from one bearer to another when each inturn grew tired of his weight. Just, however, as they were nearingtheir own neighbourhood, a counter cry broke out, "Witchcraft! Hisarrows are bewitched by the old Spanish sorcerer! Down with Dragons andWizards!" And a handful of mud came full in the face of the enthronedlad, aimed no doubt by George Bates. There was a yell and rush of rage,but the enemy was in numbers too small to attempt resistance, and dashedoff before their pursuers, only pausing at safe corners to shoutParthian darts of "Wizards!" "Magic!" "Sorcerers!" "Heretics!"

There was nothing to be done but to collect again, and escort Stephen,who had wiped the mud off his face, to the Dragon court, where Dennetdanced on the steps for joy, and Master Headley, not a little gratified,promised Stephen a supper for a dozen of his particular friends atArmourers' Hall on the ensuing Easter Sunday.

Of course Stephen went in search of his brother, all the more eagerlybecause he was conscious that they had of late drifted apart a gooddeal. Ambrose was more and more absorbed by the studies to which LucasHansen led him, and took less and less interest in his brother'spursuits. He did indeed come to the Sunday's dinner according to theregular custom, but the moment it was permissible to leave the board hewas away with Tibble Steelman to meet friends of Lucas, and pursuestudies, as if, Stephen thought, he had not enough of books as it was.When Dean Colet preached or catechised in Saint Paul's in the afternoonthey both attended and listened, but that good man was in failinghealth, and his wise discourses were less frequent.

Where they were at other times, Stephen did not know, and hardly cared,except that he had a general dislike to, and jealousy of, anything thattook his brother's sympathy away from him. Moreover Ambrose's face wasthinner and paler, he had a strange absorbed look, and often even whenthey were together seemed hardly to attend to what his brother wassaying.

"I will make him come," said Stephen to himself, as he went withswinging gait towards Warwick Inner Ward, where, sure enough, he foundAmbrose sitting at the door, frowning over some black-letter whichlooked most uninviting in the eyes of the apprentice, and he fell uponhis brother with half angry, half merry reproofs for wasting the finespring after

noon over such studies.

Ambrose looked up with a dreamy smile and greeted his brother; but allthe time Stephen was narrating the history of the match, (and he _did_tell the fate of each individual arrow of his own or Barlow's), his eyeswere wandering back to the crabbed page in his hand, and when Stephenimpatiently wound up his history with the invitation to supper on EasterSunday, the reply was, "Nay, brother, thanks, but that I cannot do."

"Cannot!" exclaimed Stephen.

"Nay, there are other matters in hand that go deeper."

"Yea, I know whatever concerns musty books goes deeper with thee thanthy brother," replied Stephen, turning away much mortified.

Ambrose's warm nature was awakened. He held his brother by the arm anddeclared himself anything but indifferent to him, but he owned that hedid not love noise and revelry, above all on Sunday.

"Thou art addling thy brains with preachings!" said Stephen. "PrayHeaven they make not a heretic of thee. But thou mightest for once havecome to mine own feast."

Ambrose, much perplexed and grieved at thus vexing his brother, declaredthat he would have done so with all his heart, but that this very EasterSunday there was coming a friend of Master Hansen's from Holland: whowas to tell them much of the teaching in Germany, which was soenlightening men's eyes.

"Yea, truly, making heretics of them, Mistress Headley saith," returnedStephen. "O Ambrose, if thou wilt run after these books and parchments,canst not do it in right fashion, among holy monks, as of old?"

"Holy monks!" repeated Ambrose. "Holy monks! Where be they?"

Stephen stared at him.

"Hear uncle Hal talk of monks whom he sees at my Lord Cardinal's table!What holiness is there among them? Men, that have vowed to renounce allworldly and carnal things flaunt like peacocks and revel like swine--myLord Cardinal with his silver pillars foremost of them! He poor andmortified! 'Tis verily as our uncle saith, he plays the least false andshameful part there!"

"Ambrose, Ambrose, thou wilt be distraught, poring over these mattersthat were never meant for lads like us! Do but come and drive them outfor once with mirth and good fellowship."

"I tell thee, Stephen, what thou callest mirth and good fellowship dobut drive the pain in deeper. Sin and guilt be everywhere. I seem tosee the devils putting foul words on the tongue and ill deeds in thehands of myself and all around me, that they may accuse us before God.No, Stephen, I cannot, cannot come. I must go where I can hear of abetter way."

"Nay," said Stephen, "what better way can there be than to be shriven--clean shriven--and then houselled, as I was ere Lent, and trust to beagain on next Low Sunday morn? That's enough for a plain lad." Hecrossed himself reverently, "Mine own Lord pardoneth and cometh to me."

But the two minds, one simple and practical, the other sensitive andspeculative, did not move in the same atmosphere, and could notunderstand one another. Ambrose was in the condition of excitement andbewilderment produced by the first stirrings of the Reformation uponenthusiastic minds. He had studied the Vulgate, made out something ofthe Greek Testament, read all fragments of the Fathers that came in hisway, and also all the controversial "tractates," Latin or Dutch, that hecould meet with, and attended many a secret conference between Lucas andhis friends, when men, coming from Holland or Germany, communicatedaccounts of the lectures and sermons of Dr Martin Luther, which alreadywere becoming widely known.

He was wretched under the continual tossings of his mind. Was theentire existing system a vast delusion, blinding the eyes and destroyingthe souls of those who trusted to it; and was the only safety in the onepoint of faith that Luther pressed on all, and ought all that he hadhitherto revered to crumble down to let that alone be upheld? Whateverhe had once loved and honoured at times seemed to him a lie, while atothers real affection and veneration, and dread of sacrilege, made himshudder at himself and his own doubts! It was his one thought, and hepassionately sought after all those secret conferences which did butfeed the flame that consumed him.

The elder men who were with him were not thus agitated. Lucas'sconvictions had not long been fixed. He did not court observation nordo anything unnecessarily to bring persecution on himself, but hequietly and secretly acted as an agent in dispersing the Lollard booksand those of Erasmus, and lived in the conviction that there would oneday be a great crash, believing himself to be doing his part byundermining the structure, and working on undoubtingly. Abenali was notaggressive. In fact, though he was reckoned among Lucas's party,because of his abstinence from all cult of saints or images, and thepersecution he had suffered, he did not join in their general opinions,and held aloof from their meetings. And Tibble Steelman, as has beenbefore said, lived two lives, and that as foreman at the Dragon court,being habitual to him, and requiring much thought and exertion, thespeculations of the reformers were to him more like an intellectualrelaxation than the business of life. He took them as a modern artisanwould in this day read his newspaper, and attend his club meeting.

Ambrose, however, had the enthusiastic practicalness of youth. On thatwhich he fully believed, he must act, and what did he fully believe?

Boy as he was--scarcely yet eighteen--the toils and sports thatdelighted his brother seemed to him like toys amusing infants on theverge of an abyss, and he spent his leisure either in searching in theVulgate for something to give him absolute direction, or in going insearch of preachers, for, with the stirring of men's minds, sermons werebecoming more frequent.

There was much talk just now of the preaching of one Doctor Beale, towhom all the tradesmen, Journeymen, and apprentices were resorting, eventhose who were of no special religious tendencies. Ambrose went onEaster Tuesday to hear him preach at Saint Mary's Spitall. The placewas crowded with artificers, and Beale began by telling them that he had"a pitiful bill," meaning a letter, brought to him declaring how aliensand strangers were coming in to inhabit the City and suburbs, to eat thebread from poor fatherless children, and take the living from allartificers and the intercourse from merchants, whereby poverty was somuch increased that each bewaileth the misery of others. Presentlycoming to his text, "_Caelum caeli Domini, terram autem dedit filiishominis_," (the Heaven of Heavens is the Lord's, the earth hath He givento the children of men), the doctor inculcated that England was given toEnglishmen, and that as birds would defend their nests, so oughtEnglishmen to defend themselves, _and to hurt and grieve aliens for thecommon weal_! The corollary a good deal resembled that of "hate thineenemy" which was foisted by "them of the old time" upon "thou shalt lovethy neighbour." And the doctor went on upon the text, "_Pugna propatria_," to demonstrate that fighting for one's country meant risingupon and expelling all the strangers who dwelt and traded within it.Many of these foreigners were from the Hanse towns which had specialcommercial privileges, there were also numerous Venetians and Genoese,French and Spaniards, the last of whom were, above all, the objects ofdislike. Their imports of silks, cloth of gold, stamped leather, wineand oil, and their superior skill in many handicrafts, had put Englishwares out of fashion; and their exports of wool, tin, and lead excitedequal jealousy, which Dr Beale, instigated as was well known by abroker named John Lincoln, was thus stirring up into fierce passion.His sermon was talked of all over London; blacker looks than ever weredirected at the aliens, stones and dirt were thrown at them, and evenAmbrose, as he walked along the street, was reviled as the Dutchkin'sknave. The insults became each day more daring and outrageous. GeorgeBates and a skinner's apprentice named Studley were caught in the act oftripping up a portly old Flanderkin and forthwith sent to Newgate, andthere were other arrests, which did but inflame the smouldering rage ofthe mob. Some of the wealthier foreigners, taking warning by the signsof danger, left the City, for there could be no doubt that the whole ofLondon and the suburbs were in a combustible condition of discontent,needing only a spark to set it alight.

It was just about this time that a disreputable clerk--a lewd priest, asHall calls him--a hanger-on of the house of Howard, was guilty of anins

ult to a citizen's wife as she was quietly walking home through theCheap. Her husband and brother, who were nearer at hand than heguessed, avenged the outrage with such good wills that this disgrace tothe priesthood was left dead on the ground. When such things happened,and discourses like Beale's were heard, it was not surprising thatAmbrose's faith in the clergy as guides received severe shocks.