A NY one who happened to be traveling along the Islington Road between two and three o'clock in the morning, when London was a walled city, would have seen how London was to be fed that day. But very few were on the road at that hour except the people whose business it was to feed London, and to them it was an old story. There were men with cattle and men with sheep and men with pigs; there were men with little, sober, gray donkeys, not much bigger than a large dog, trotting all so briskly along with the deep baskets known as paniers hung on each side their backs; men with paniers or huge sacks on their own backs, partly resting on the shoulders and partly held by a leather strap around the forehead; men with flat, shallow baskets on their heads, piled three and four deep and filled with vegetables. That was the way in which all the butter, fruit, poultry, eggs, meat, and milk for Londoners to eat came into medieval London. Before London Wall was fairly finished there were laws against anyone within the city keeping cattle or pigs on the premises. Early every morning the market folk started from the villages round about,—there were women as well as men in the business—and by the time the city gates opened they were there.
It was not as exciting to Barbara Thwaite as it would have been if she had not known every inch of the road, but it was exciting enough on this particular summer morning, for in all her thirteen years she had never been to market alone. Goody Thwaite had been trudging over the road several times a week for years—seven miles to London and several miles home—and sometimes she had taken Barbara with her, but never had she sent the child by herself. Now she was bedridden and unless they were to lose all their work for the last month or more, Barbara would have to go to market and tend their stall. Several of the neighbors had stalls near by, and they would look after the child, but this was the busy season, and they could not undertake to carry any produce but their own. A neighbor, too old to do out-of-door work, would tend the mother, and with much misgiving and many cautions, consent was given, and Barbara set bravely forth alone.
She had her hands full in more senses than one. Besides the basket she carried on her head, full of cress from the brook, sallet herbs and under these some early cherries, she had a basket of eggs on her arm, and she was driving three geese. Barbara's geese were trained to walk in the most orderly single file at home, but she had her doubts as to their behavior in a strange place.
The Islington Road, however, was not the broad and dusty highway that it is to-day, and at first it was not very crowded. Now and again, from one of the little wooded lanes that led up to farmsteads, a marketman would turn into the highway with his load, and more and more of them appeared as they neared the city, so that by the time they reached the city gate it was really a dense throng. From roads in every direction just such crowds were pressing toward all the other gates, and boats laden with green stuff, fruits, butter and cheese were heading for the wharves on Thames-side, all bound for the market.
Naturally it had been discovered long before that some sort of order would have to be observed, or there would be a frightful state of things among the eatables. Like most cities, London was inhabited largely by people who had come from smaller towns, and certain customs were common more or less to every market-town in England. In the smaller towns the cattle-market was held weekly or fortnightly, so that people not anxious to deal in cattle could avoid the trampling herds. London's cattle-market was not in the Chepe at all. It was in the fields outside the walls, in the deep inbent angle which the wall made between Aldersgate and Newgate, where Smithfield market is now. Even in the Chepe each kind of goods had its own place, and once through the gates the crowd separated.
Barbara knew exactly where to go. From Aldersgate she turned to the left and followed the narrow streets toward the spire of St. Michael's Church in Cornhill, where the poultry-dealers had their stands. Close by was Scalding Alley, sometimes known as the Poultry, where poultry were sold by the score, and the fowls were scalded after being killed, to make them ready for cooking. Goody Thwaite's little corner, wedged in between two bigger stalls, was not much more than a board with a coarse awning over it, but she had been there a long time and her neighbors were friends. Barbara set down her loads, dropped on the bench and scattered a little grain for her geese. They had really behaved very well.
Barbara knew exactly where to go.
She was not very much to look at, this little lass Barbara. Her grandfather had come from the North Country, and she had black hair and eyes like a gypsy. She was rather silent as a rule, though she could sing like a blackbird when no one was about. People were likely to forget about Barbara until they wanted something done; then they remembered her.
She penned in the geese with a small hurdle of wicker so that they should not get away; she set out the cherries and cress on one side and the eggs on the other; then she put the eggs in a bed of cress to set off their whiteness; then she waited. An apprentice boy came by and asked the price of the cherries, whistled and went on; a sharp-faced woman stopped and looked over what she had, and went on. They were all in a hurry; they were all going on some errand of their own. The next person who came by was an old woman with a fresh bright face, white cap and neat homespun gown. She too asked the price of the cherries and shook her head when she heard it. "How good that cress looks!" she said smiling.
Barbara held out a bunch of the cress.
"I can't give away the cherries," she said, "they are not mine, but you're welcome to this."
"Thank you kindly, little maid," the old woman said, "my grandson's o'er fond of it. Never was such a chap for sallets and the like."
A few minutes later a stout, rather fussy man stopped and bought the whole basket of eggs. As he paid for them and signed to the boy who followed to take them, Michael the poultryman in the next stall grinned at Barbara.
"Ye don't know who that was, do you?" he said. "That was old Gamelyn Bouverel the goldsmith. You'll be sorry if any of those eggs be addled, my maiden."
"They're not," said Barbara. "I know where all our hens' nests are, and Gaffer Edmunds' too. We sell for him since he had the palsy."
Then a tall man in a sort of uniform stopped, eyed the staff, and without asking leave took one of the geese from the pen and strode off with it hissing and squawking under his arm. But Michael shook his head soberly as Barbara sprang up with a startled face.
"That was one o' the purveyors of my lord Fitz-Walter," he said. "He may pay for the bird and he may not, but you can't refuse him. There's one good thing—London folk don't have to feed the King's soldiers nor his household. Old King Henry,—rest his soul!—settled that in the Charter he gave to the City, and this one has kept to it. My grand-dad used to tell how any time you might have a great roaring archer or man-at-arms, or more likely two or three a dozen, quartered in your house, willy nilly, for nobody knew how long. There goes the bell for Prime—that ends the privilege."
Then Barbara remembered that the stewards of great houses were allowed to visit the market and choose what they wished until Prime (about six o'clock) after which the market was open to common folk. A merchant's wife bought another goose and some cherries, and the remaining goose was taken off her hands by the good-natured Michael, to make up a load of his own for a tavern-keeper. The rest of the cherries were sold to a young man who was very particular about the way in which they were arranged in the basket, and Barbara guessed that he was going to take them as a present to some one. The cress had gone a handful at a time with the other things, and she had some of it for her own dinner, with bread from the bakeshop and some cold meat which Goody Collins, her neighbor on the the other side, had sent for. She started for home in good time, and brought her little store of money to her mother before any one had even begun to worry over her absence.
The next market-day Barbara set forth with a light heart, but when she reached her stall she found it occupied. A rough lout had set up shop there, with dressed poultry for sale. A-plenty had been said about it before Barbara arrived, both by Michael and the rough-tongued, kind-hearted market-women. But Michael was old and fat, and no match for the invader. Barbara stood in dismay, a great basket of red roses on her head, her egg-basket on the ground, and the cherries from their finest tree in a panier hung from her shoulder. The merchant's wife had asked her if she could not bring some roses for rose-water and conserve, and if she had to hawk them in the sun they would be fit for nothing. The Poultry was crowded, and unless she could have her little foothold here she would be obliged to go about the streets peddling, which she knew her mother would not like at all.
"What's your trouble here?" asked a decided voice behind her. She turned to look up into the cool gray eyes of a masterful young fellow with a little old woman tucked under his arm. He was brown and lithe and had an air of outdoor freshness, and suddenly she recognized the old woman. It was that first customer, and this must be the grandson of whom she had spoken so fondly.
"This man says he has this place and means to keep it," Barbara explained in a troubled but firm little voice. "He says that only the poultry dealers have any right here,—but it's Mother's corner and she has had it a long time."
"Aye, that she has," chorused two or three voices. "And if there was a man belonging to them you'd see yon scamp go packing, like a cat out o' the dairy. 'Tis a downright shame, so 'tis."
"Maybe a man that don't belong to them will do as well," said the youth coolly. "Back here, gammer, out of the way—and you go stand by her, little maid. Now then, you lummox, are you going to pick up your goods and go, or do I have to throw them after you?"
The surly fellow eyed the new-comer's broad shoulders and hard-muscled arms for a moment, picked up his poultry and began to move, but as he loaded his donkeys he said something under his breath which Barbara did not hear. An instant later she beheld him lying on his back in a none-too-clean gutter with her defender standing over him. He lost no time in making his way out of the street, followed by the laughter of the Poultry. Even the ducks, geese and chickens joined in the cackle of merriment.
"Sit thee down and rest," said the youth to Barbara kindly. "We must be getting on, grandmother. If he makes any more trouble, send some one, or come yourself, to our lodging—ask for Robert Edrupt at the house of Master Hardel the wool-merchant."
"Thank you," said Barbara shyly. "There's plenty cress in the brook, and I'll bring some next market-day—and strawberries too, but not for pay."
"Kindness breeds kindness, little maid," added the old woman, and Barbara reflected that it sometimes breeds good fortune also.
This was not the end of Barbara's accquaintance with Dame Lysbeth and her grandson. The old dame had taken a fancy to the self-possessed, quaintly dignified little maid, and the Thwaite garden proved to have in it many fruits and herbs which she needed in her housekeeping. It was a very old-fashioned garden planted a long time ago by a tavern-keeper from the south of France, and he had brought some pears and plums from his old home in the south and grafted and planted and tended them carefully. There was one tree which had two kinds of pears on it, one for the north side and one for the south.
Barbara's mother did not get any better. One day Robert Edrupt stopped by in the Poultry to buy a goose for dinner, to celebrate his home-coming from a long wool-buying journey, and the stall was empty.
"Aye," said Goody Collins, wiping her eyes, "she was a good-hearted woman, was Alison Thwaite, and there's many who will miss her. She died two days ago, rest her soul."
Edrupt bought his goose of Michael and went on his way looking sober. A plan had occurred to him, and when he talked it over with Dame Lysbeth she heartily agreed. A day or two later Barbara, standing in the door of the little lonely cottage and wondering what she should do now, saw the two of them coming down the lane. Dame Lysbeth opened the gate and came in, but Robert, after a bow and a pleasant word or two to Barbara, went on to the next farm on an errand.
Barbara could hardly believe her ears when she heard what the old dame had to say. The young wool-merchant had brought his grandmother to London to keep house for him because he did not like to leave her alone in her cottage in the west country, nor could he live there so far from the great markets. But neither of them liked the city, and for the next few years he would have to be away more than ever. He and Master Gay had been considering a scheme for importing foreign sheep to see if they would improve the quality of English wool. Before they did this Edrupt would have to go to Spain, to Acquitane, to Lombardy and perhaps even further. While he was abroad he might well study the ways of the weavers as well as the sheep that grew the fleece. He wanted to buy a farm he had seen, with a tidy house on it, where Dame Lysbeth could have the sort of home she was used to, but with maids to do the heavy farm work. If Barbara would come and live there, and help see to things, she would be very welcome indeed as long as she chose to stay.
Dame Lysbeth had never had a daughter, and she had often thought in the last few months that if she had one, she would like to have such a girl as Barbara. The young girl, on her side, already loved her old friend better than she had ever loved anybody but her own mother, and so it came about that when the spring turned the apple orchards white about King's Barton, three very happy people went from London to the farm near that village, known as the Long Lea. It had land about it which was not good enough for corn, but would do very well for geese and for sheep, and there was room for a large garden, as well as the orchard. Even in those early days, people who bought an English farm usually inherited some of the work of the previoius owner, and as Robert said, they would try to farm Long Lea in such a way as to leave it richer than they found it, and still lose no profit.
"Don't forget to take cuttings from this garden, lass," he said to Barbara in his blunt, kindly way, as they stood there together for the last time. "There are things here which we can make thrive in the years to come."
"I have," said Barbara staidly. She motioned to a carefully packed and tied parcel in a sack. "And there's a whole basket of eggs from all our fowls."
Edrupt laughed. He liked her business-like little way.
"Did you take any red-rose cuttings?" he inquired. "There's a still-room where the old castle used to be, and they'd use some, I believe."
"It's the Provence rose," Barbara said. "I took the whole bush up and set it in a wooden bucket. Michael won't want that."
Michael the poultryman was adding the little garden and the stall in the Poultry to his own business. He would cart away the little tumbledown cottage and plant kale there.
"The Provence rose, is it?" queried Edrupt thoughtfully. "We'll have it beside our door, Barbara, and that will make you feel more at home."
Both Barbara and the roses throve by transplanting. When Edrupt came home from his long foreign journey, more than a year later, it was rose-time, and Barbara, with a basket of roses on her arm, was marshaling a flock of most important mother-ducks with their ducklings into the poultry-yard. The house with its tiled and thatched roofs sat in the middle of its flocks and fruits and seemed to welcome all who came, and Dame Lysbeth, beaming from the window, looked so well content that it did him good to see her.