Gateway to the Classics: In the Days of the Guild by Louise Lamprey
In the Days of the Guild by  Louise Lamprey

The Hurer's Lodgers

How the Poppet of Joan, the Daughter of the Cap-Maker, Went to Court and Kept a Secret

J OAN, the little daughter of the hurer, sat on a three-legged stool in the corner of her father's shop, nursing her baby. It was not much of a baby, being only a piece of wood with a knob on the end. But the shop was not much of a shop. Gilles the hurer was a cripple, and it was all that he could do to give Joan and her mother a roof over their heads. They had sometimes two meals a day; oftener one; occasionally none at all.

If he could have made hats and caps like those which he used to make when he was a tradesman in Milan, every sort of fine goods would have come into the shop. In processions and pageants, at banquets, weddings, betrothals, christenings, funerals, on every occasion in life, the people wore headgear which helped to make the picture. The fashion of a man's hat suited his position in life. Details and decorations varied more or less, but the styles very seldom did. Velvet and fur were allowed only to persons of a certain dignity; hats were made to show embroidery, which might be of gold thread and jeweled. Merchants wore a sort of hood with a long loose crown which could be used as a pocket. This protected the neck and ears on a journey, and had a lining of wool, fur or lambskin. Court ladies wore hoods of velvet, silk or fine cloth for traveling. At any formal social affair a lady wore some ornamental head-dress with a veil which she could draw over her face. The wimple, usually worn by elderly women, was a scarf of fine linen thrown over her head, brought closely around the throat and chin, and held by a fillet. In later and more luxurious and splendid times, the cone-shaped and crescent-shaped head-dresses came in.

Hats were not common in the twelfth century. The hair fell in carefully arranged curls, long braids or loose tresses on the shoulders; the face was framed in delicate veils of silk or sendal, kept in place by a chaplet of flowers or a coronet of gold. Every maiden learned to weave garlands in set patterns, and could make a wreath in any one of several given styles, for her own hair or for decorating a building. Red, green and blue were the colors most often used in dress, and on any festival day the company presented a very gay appearance.

Gilles, however, was obliged to confine himself to the making of hures or rough woolen caps for common men. He had no apprentices, although his wife and daughter sometimes helped him. His shop was a corner of a very old building most of which had been burned in a great London fire. It was the oldest house in the street and was roofed with stone, which probably saved it. The ends of the beams in the wall fitted into sockets in other beams, and were set straight, crooked or diagonally without any apparent plan. Two or three hundred years before, when the house was built, the space between the timbers had been filled in with interlaced branches, over which mud was plastered on in thick coats. This made the kind of wall known as "wattle and daub." It was not very scientific in appearance, but it was weather-proof. As there was no fireplace or hearth, the family kept warm—when it could—by means of an iron brazier filled with coals. Cooking—when they had anything to cook—was done over the brazier in a chafing-dish, or in a tiny stone fireplace outside the rear wall, made of scattered stones by Joan's mother.

Gilles was a Norman, but he had been born in Sicily, which had been conquered by the Norman adventurer Guiscard long before. He had gone to Milan when a youth, and there he had met Joan's mother—and stayed. The luxury of Lombard cities made any man who could manufacture handsome clothing sure of a living. "Milaner and Mantua-Maker" on a sign above a shop centuries later meant a shop where one could find the latest fashions. Gilles was prosperous and happy, and his little girl was just learning to walk, when the siege of Milan put an end to everything. He came to London crippled from a wound and palsied from fever and set about finding work.

They might have starved if it had not been for a Florentine artist, Matteo, who was also a stranger in London, but had all that he could do. He lodged for a year in the solar chamber, as the room above the shop was called. Poor as their shelter was, it had this room to spare. Matteo paid his way in more than money; he improved the house. He understood plaster work, and covered the inner walls with a smooth creamy mixture which made a beautiful surface for pictures. On this fair and spotless plaster he made studies of what he saw day by day drawing, painting, painting out and making new studies as he certainly could not have done had he been lodged in a palace. All along two sides of the shop was a procession of dignitaries in the most gorgeous of holiday robes. In the chamber above were portraits of the King and Queen, the Bishop of London, Prior Hagno preaching to a crowd at Bartlemy Fair, some of the chief men of the government, and animals wild and tame. He told Joan stories about the paintings, and these walls were the only picture-books that she had.

Then they sheltered a smooth-spoken Italian called Giuseppe, who nearly got them into terrible trouble. He not only never paid a penny, but barely escaped the officers of the law, who asked a great many questions about him and how they came to harbor him. After that they made it a rule not to take any one in unless he was recommended by some one they knew. It was worse to go to prison than to be hungry.

One day, when Gilles had just been paid for some work done for Master Nicholas Gay, the rich merchant, a slender, dark-eyed youth with a workman's pack on his shoulder came and asked for a room. Hardly had Joan called her mother when the stranger reeled and fell unconscious on the floor of the shop. He did not know where he was or who he was for days. They remembered Giuseppe and were dubious, but they kept him and tended him until he was able to talk. His tools and his hands showed him to be a wood-carver, and his dress was foreign. His illness was something like what used to be called ship-fever, due to the hard conditions of long voyages, in wooden ships not too clean.

When their guest was able to talk he told them that he was Quentin, a wood-carver of Peronne. He had met Matteo in Messina and thus heard of this lodging. He had come to London to work at the oaken stalls of the Bishop of Ely's private chapel in Holborn. These stalls, or choir-seats, in a Gothic church were designed to suit the stately high-arched building. Their straight tall backs were carved in wood, and the arm-rests ended in an ornament called a finial. Often no two stalls were alike, and yet the different designs were shaped to fit the general style, so that the effect was uniform. The carving of one pair of arms might be couchant lions; on the next, leopards; on the next, hounds, and so on. The seats were usually hinged and could be raised when not in use. The under side of the seat, which then formed part of all this elaborate show of decoration, was most often carved with grotesque little squat figures of any sort that occurred to the artist. Here Noah stuck his head out of a nutshell Ark; there a woman belabored her husband for breaking a jug; on the next stall there might be three solemn monkeys making butter in a churn. Quentin's fancy was apt to run to little wood-goblins, mermaids, crowned lizards, fauns, and flying ships. He came from a country where the forests are full of fairy-tales.

Joan would be very sorry to have Quentin go away. She was thinking of this as she sat in the twilight nursing her wooden poppet. When he came in at last he had his tools with him, and a piece of fine hard wood about two feet long. Seating himself on a bench he lit the betty lamp on the wall, and laying out his knives and gouges he began to carve a face on the wood.

Joan could not imagine what he was making, and she watched intently. The face grew into that of a charming little lady, with eyes crinkled as if they laughed, and a dimple in her firm chin. The hair waved over the round head; the neck was as softly curved as a pigeon's. The gown met in a V shape at the throat, with a bead necklace carved above. There was a close-fitting bodice, with sleeves that came down over the wrists and wrinkled into folds, and a loose over-sleeve that came to the elbow. The skirt fell in straight folds and there was a little ornamental border in a daisy pattern around the hem. When the statuette was finished and set up, it was like a court lady made small by enchantment.

"There is a poppet for thee, small one," Quentin said smiling.

Joan's hands clasped tight and her eyes grew big and dark. "For me?" she cried.

"It is a poor return for the kindness that I have had in this house," answered Quentin brushing the chips into the brazier.

The poppet seemed to bring luck to the hurer's household. Through Gilles, Master Gay had heard of Quentin's work, and he ordered a coffret for his wife, and a settle. The arms of the settle were to be carved with little lady-figures like Joan's, and Master Gay asked if they could not all be portraits of Princesses. Joan's own poppet was named Marguerite for the daughter of the French King, who had married the eldest son of Henry II. Quentin had copied the face from Matteo's sketch upon the wall, and in one room or the other were all the other members of the royal family. But as it would not be suitable to show Queens and Princesses upholding the arms of a chair in the house of a London merchant, Quentin suggested that they change the design, and use the leopards of Anjou for the arms, while the statuettes of the Princesses were ranged along the top of the high back. There could be five open-work arches with a figure in each, and plain linen-fold paneling below. Where the carving needed a flower or so he would put alternately the lilies of France and the sprig of broom which was the badge of the Plantagenets. Thus the piece of carving would commemorate the fact that the family of the King of England was related to nearly every royal house in Europe through marriage. It would be a picture-chronicle.

In the middle arch was Marguerite, who would be Queen of England some day if her husband lived. At her right hand was Constance of Brittany, wife of Geoffrey, who through her would inherit that province. The other figures were Eleanor, who was married to Alfonso, King of Castile; Matilda, who was the wife of Henry the Lion, Duke of Saxony, the most powerful vassal of the German Emperor; and Joan, the youngest, betrothed to William, called the Good, King of Sicily.

"There will be two more princesses some day," said Joan, cuddling Marguerite in her arms as she watched Quentin's deft strokes. "Prince Richard is not married yet, and neither is Prince John."

"The work cannot wait for that, little one," Quentin answered laughing. "Richard is only sixteen, and John still younger. Yet they do say that the King is planning an alliance with Princess Alois of France for Richard, and is in treaty with Hubert the Duke of Maurienne for his daughter to wed with John. I thnk, myself, that Richard will choose his own bride."

Joan said nothing, but in her own mind she thought it would be most unpleasant to be married off like that, by arrangements made years before.

"The marriage with Hubert's daughter," Quentin added half to himself, "would keep open the way into Italy if it were needed. It is a bad thing to have an enemy blocking your gate."

Although her poppet was carved so that the small out-held hands and arms were clear of the body, and dresses could be fitted over them, Joan found that there were but few points or edges that were likely to be chipped off. The wood was well seasoned, and the carving followed the grain most cunningly. Neither dampness nor wood-boring insects could easily get into the channels where sap once ran. This was part of the wisdom of wood-carving.

When Joan grew too old to play with her poppet she sometimes carried her to some fine house to show a new fashion, or style of embroidery. Marguerite had a finer wardrobe than any modern doll, for the little hats, hoods and head-dresses had each a costume to go with it, and all were kept in a chest Quentin had made for her, with the arms of Milan on the lid. No exiled Milanese ever quite gave up the hope that some day the city would be rebuilt in all its splendor, and the foreign governors driven from Lombardy. Joan used to hear her father talking of it with their next lodger, Giovanni Bergamotto, who was a peddler at fairs. Gilles had had steady work for a long time, and was making not only the rough caps he used to make, now turned out by an apprentice, but fine hats and caps for the wealthy. A carved and gilded hat swung before the door, and Joan learned embroidery of every kind. She saw Quentin now and then, and one day he sent word to her, by the wool-merchant Robert Edrupt, that Queen Eleanor wished to see the newest court fashions, and that Joan might journey with Edrupt and his wife to the abbey where she was living. It was one of the best known houses in England, and the Abbess was of royal blood. It was not at all unusual for its guest-rooms to be occupied by Queens and Princesses.

Quentin had been sent there to do some work for the Abbey, and in that way the Queen, through Philippa, her maid of honor, had heard of Joan.

"I suppose it is a natural desire in a woman," Master Edrupt said when they talked of the matter, "but somehow I would stake my head it is not the fashions she is after."

Barbara his wife smiled but said nothing. She agreed.

When Joan had modestly shown her wares, and the little wooden court lady had smiled demurely through it all, the Queen dandled Marguerite on her knee and thoughtfully looked her over.

"The face is surely like the Princess of France," she said. And Joan felt more than ever certain that there was a reason for this interest in poppets.

Later in the day she found out what it was. Quentin was carving other little lady-figures like those he had made years ago for Master Gay. He had also made the figures of a Bishop, a King, a Monk, and a Merchant; with a grotesque hump-backed hook-nosed Dwarf for the Jester. It looked as if a giant were about to play chess. Padraig, an Irish scribe who had made some designs for the Queen's tapestry-workers, was using his best penmanship to copy certain letters on fine parchment. Giovanni, who had sprung up from somewhere, was making a harness-like contrivance of hempen cords, iron hooks and rods, and wooden pulleys. When finished it went into a small bag of tow-cloth; if stretched out it filled the end of a rough wooden frame. Joan began to suspect that the figures were for a puppet show.

"It is time to explain," Quentin said to the others. "We can trust Joan. She is as true as steel."

Joan's heart leaped with pride. If Milan had only honor left, her children would keep that.

"It is this, Joan," Quentin went on kindly. "In time of war any messenger may be searched, and we do not know when war will come. King Henry desires above all things the peace of his realm. He will not openly take the side of the Lombard cities against Frederick Barbarossa—yet. But he will throw all his influence into the scale if he can. The Queen has hit upon a way by which letters can be sent safely to the courts of Brittany, France, Castile, Sicily, and even to Saxony, which is in Barbarossa's own domains. Giovanni will travel as a peddler, with the weaver-boy Cimarron as his servant or companion, as may seem best. He will have a pack full of such pretty toys as maidens love,—broidered veils, pomanders, perfumed gloves, girdles—nothing costly enough to tempt robbers—and these wooden poppets of ours. We cannot trust the tiring-women in times like these, but he may be able to give the letters into the hands of the Queens themselves. No one, surely, will suspect a poppet. These gowns and wimples will display the fashions, and I had another reason for telling you to bring them all. If he cannot get his chance as a peddler he can hang about the court with a puppet-show. Now, look here."

Quentin took the softly smiling poppet and began to twist her neck. When he had unscrewed the dainty little head a deep hole appeared in the middle of the figure. Into this Padraig fitted a roll of parchment, and over it a wooden peg.

"May she keep it?" Quentin asked gently. "There is need for haste, and I have not time to make another figure."

Joan swallowed hard. Marguerite had heard many secrets that no one else knew. "Aye," she said, "I will let her go."

Then each little figure in turn received its secret to keep, and Joan, Lady Philippa, and the other maids sewed furiously for a day and a half. Each Princess was gowned in robes woven with the arms of her kingdom. The other figures were suitably dressed. The weights which made the jester turn a somersault were gold inside a lead casing—Giovanni might need that. There were jewels hidden safely in his dagger-hilt and Cimarron's, but to all appearances they were two common chapmen. They were gone for a long time, but Marguerite—the only poppet to return—came back safely, and inside her discreet bosom were letters for the King. Cimarron brought her to the door of Gilles the hurer, and told Joan that Giovanni, after selling the puppet-show, had stayed in Alexandria to fight for Milan.

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