At the Sign of the Gold Finch
How Guy, the Goldsmith's Apprentice, Won the Desire of His Heart
B ANG— slam—bang-bang—slam! slam! slam!
If anybody on the Chepe in the twelfth century had ever heard of rifle-practice, early risers thereabouts might have been reminded of the crackle of guns. The noise was made by the taking down of shutters all along the shop fronts, and stacking them together out of the way. The business day in London still begins in the same way, but now there are plate-glass windows inside the shutters, and the shops open between eight and nine instead of soon after daybreak.
It was the work of the apprentices and the young sons of shop-keepers to take down the shutters, sweep the floors, and put things in order for the business of the day. This was the task which Guy, nephew of Gamelyn the goldsmith, at the sign of the Gold Finch, particularly liked. The air blew sweet and fresh from the convent gardens to the eastward of the city, or up the river below London Bridge, or down from the forest-clad hills of the north, and those who had the first draft of it were in luck. London streets were narrow and twisty-wise, but not overhung with coal smoke, for the city still burned wood from the forests without the walls.
On this May morning, Guy was among the first of the boys who tumbled out from beds behind the counter and began to open the shops. The shop-fronts were all uninclosed on the first floor, and when the shutters were down the shop was separated from the street only by the counter. Above were the rooms in which the shop-keeper and his family lived, and the second story often jutted over the one below and made a kind of covered porch. In some of the larger shops, like this one of Goldsmiths' Row, the jewelers' street, there was a third story which could be used as a storeroom. There were no glass cases or glass windows. Lattices and shutters were used in window-openings, and the goods of finer quality were kept in wooden chests. The shop was also a work-room, for the shop-keeper was a manufacturer as well, and a part if not all that he sold was made in his own house.
Guy, having stacked away the shutters and taken a drink of water from the well in the little garden at the rear, got a broom and began to sweep the stone floor. It was like the brooms in pictures of witches, a bundle of fresh twigs bound on the end of a stick, withes of supple young willow being used instead of cord. Some of the twigs in the broom had sprouted green leaves. Guy sang as he swept the trash out into the middle of the street, but as a step came down the narrow stair he hushed his song. When old Gamelyn had rheumatism the less noise there was, the better. The five o'clock breakfast, a piece of brown bread, a bit of herring and a horn cup of ale, was soon finished, and then the goldsmith, rummaging among his wares, hauled a leather sack out of a chest and bade Guy run with it to Ely House.
This was an unexpected pleasure, especially for a spring morning as fair as a blossoming almond tree. The Bishop of Ely lived outside London Wall, near the road to Oxford, and his house was like a palace in a fairy-tale. It had a chapel as stately as an ordinary church, a great banquet-hall, and acres of gardens and orchards. No pleasanter place could be found for an errand in May. Guy trotted along in great satisfaction, making all the speed he could, for the time he saved on the road he might have to look about in Ely House.
For a city boy, he was extremely fond of country ways. He liked to walk out on a holiday to Mile End between the convent gardens; he liked to watch the squirrels flyte and frisk among the huge trees of Epping Forest; he liked to follow at the heels of the gardener at Ely House and see what new plant, shrub or seed some traveler from far lands had brought for the Bishop. He did not care much for the city houses, even for the finest ones, unless they had a garden. Privately he thought that if ever he had his uncle's shop and became rich,—and his uncle had no son of his own,—he would have a house outside the wall, with a garden in which he would grow fruits and vegetables for his table. Another matter on which his mind was quite made up was the kind of things that would be made in the shop when he had it. The gold finch that served for a sign had been made by his grandfather, who came from Limoges, and it was handsomer than anything that Guy had seen there in Gamelyn's day. Silver and gold work was often sent there to be repaired, like the cup he had in the bag, a silver wine-cup which the Bishop's steward now wanted at once; but Guy wanted to learn to make such cups, and candlesticks, and finely wrought banquet-dishes himself.
He gave the cup to the steward and was told to come back for his money after tierce, that is, after the service at the third hour of the day, about half way between sunrise and noon. There were no clocks, and Guy would know when it was time to go back by the sound of the church bells. The hall was full of people coming and going on various errands. One was a tired-looking man in a coarse robe, and broad hat, rope girdle, and sandals, who, when he was told that the Bishop was at Westminster on business with the King, looked so disappointed that Guy felt sorry for him. The boy slipped into the garden for a talk with his old friend the gardener, who gave him a head of new lettuce and some young mustard, both of which were uncommon luxuries in a London household of that day, and some roots for the tiny walled garden which he and Aunt Joan were doing their best to keep up. As he came out of the gate, having got his money, he saw the man he had noticed before sitting by the roadside trying to fasten his sandal. The string was worn out.
A boy's pocket usually has string in it. Guy found a piece of leather thong in his pouch and rather shyly held it out. The man looked up with an odd smile.
"I thank you," he said in curious formal English with a lisp in it. "There is courtesy, then, among Londoners? I began to think none here cared for anything but money, and yet the finest things in the world are not for sale."
Guy did not know what to answer, but the idea interested him.
"The sky above our heads," the wayfarer went on, looking with narrowed eyes at the pink may spilling over the gray wall of the Bishop's garden,—"flowers, birds, music, these are for all. When you go on a pilgrimage you find out how pleasant is the world when you need not think of gain."
The stranger was a pilgrim, then. That accounted for the clothes, but old Gamelyn had been on pilgrimage to the new shrine at Canterbury, and it had not helped his rheumatism much, and certainly had given him no such ideas as these. Guy looked up at the weary face with the brilliant eyes and smile,—they were walking together now,—and wondered.
"And what do you do in London?" the pilgrim asked.
"My uncle is a goldsmith in Chepe," said the boy.
"And are you going to be a goldsmith in Chepe too?"
"I suppose so."
"Then you like not the plan?"
Guy hesitated. He never had talked of his feeling about the business, but he felt that this man would see what he meant. "I should like it better than anything," he said, "if we made things like those the Bishop has. Uncle Gamelyn says that there is no profit in them, because they take the finest metal and the time of the best workmen, and the pay is no more, and folk do not want them."
"My boy," said the pilgrim earnestly, "there are always folk who want the best. There are always men who will make only the best, and when the two come together—" He clapped his hollowed palms like a pair of cymbals. "Would you like to make a dish as blue as the sea, with figures of the saints in gold work and jewel-work—a gold cup garlanded with flowers all done in their own color,—a shrine three-fold, framing pictures of the saints and studded with orfrey-work of gold and gems, yet so beautiful in the mere work that no one would think of the jewels? Would you?"
"Would I!" said Guy with a deep quick breath.
"Our jewelers of Limoges make all these, and when kings and their armies come from the Crusades they buy of us thank-offerings,—candlesticks, altar-screens caskets, chalices, gold and silver and enamel-work of every kind. We sit at the cross-roads of Christendom. The jewels come to us from the mines of East and West. Men come to us with full purses and glad hearts, desiring to give to the Church costly gifts of their treasure, and our best work is none too good for their desire. But here we are at Saint Paul's. I shall see you again, for I have business on the Chepe."
Guy headed for home as eagerly as a marmot in harvest time, threading his way through the crowds of the narrow streets without seeing them. He could not imagine who the stranger might be. It was dinner time, and he had to go to the cook-shop and bring home the roast, for families who could afford it patronized the cook-shops on the Thames instead of roasting and baking at home in the narrow quarters of the shops. In the great houses, with their army of servants and roomy kitchens, it was different; and the very poor did what they could, as they do everywhere; but when the wife and daughters of the shopkeeper served in the shop, or worked at embroidery, needle-craft, weaving or any light work of the trade that they could do, it was an economy to have the cooking done out of the house.
When the shadows were growing long and the narrow pavement of Goldsmith's Row was quite dark, some one wearing a gray robe and a broad hat came along the street, slowly, glancing into each shop as he passed. To Guy's amazement, old Gamelyn got to his feet and came forward.
"Is it—is it thou indeed, master?" he said, bowing again and again. The pilgrim smiled.
"A fine shop you have here," he said, "and a fine young bird in training for the sign of the Gold Finch. He and I scraped acquaintance this morning. Is he the youth of whom you told me when we met at Canterbury?"
It was hard on Guy that just at that moment his aunt Joan called him to get some water from the well, but he went, all bursting with eagerness as he was. The pilgrim stayed to supper, and in course of time Guy found out what he had come for.
He was Eloy, one of the chief jewelers of Limoges, which in the Middle Ages meant that his work was known in every country of Europe, for that city had been as famous for its gold work ever since the days of Clovis as it is now for porcelain. Enamel-work was done there as well, and the cunning workmen knew how to decorate gold, silver, or copper in colors like vivid flame, living green, the blue of summer skies. Eloy offered to take Guy as an apprentice and teach him all that he could for the sake of the maker of the Gold Finch, who had been his own good friend and master. It was as if the head of one of the great Paris studios should offer free training for the next ten years to some penniless art student of a country town.
What amazed Guy more than anything else, however, was the discovery that his grumbling old uncle, who never had had a good word to say for him in the shop, had told this great artist about him when they met five years before, and begged Eloy if ever he came to London to visit the Gold Finch and see the little fellow who was growing up there to learn the ancient crafts in a town where men hardly knew what good work was. Even now old Gamelyn would only say that his nephew was a good boy and willing, but so painstaking that he would never make a tradesman; he spent so much unnecessary time on his work.
"He may be an artist," said Eloy with a smile; and some specimens of the work which Guy did when he was a man, which are now carefully kept in museums, prove that he was. No one knows how the enamel-work of Limoges was done; it is only clear that the men who did it were artists. The secret has long been lost—ever since the city, centuries ago, was trampled under the feet of war.