N ICHOLAS GAY stood on the wharf by his father's warehouse, and the fresh morning breeze that blew up from the Pool of the Thames was ruffling his bright hair. He could hear the seamen chanting at the windlass, and the shouts of the boatmen threading their skiffs and scows in and out among the crowded shipping. There were high-pooped Flemish freighters, built to hold all the cargo possible for a brief voyage; English coasting ships, lighter and quicker in the chop of the Channel waves; larger and more dignified London merchantmen, that had the best oak of the Weald in their bones and the pick of the Southdown wool to fill them full; Mediterranean galleys that shipped five times the crew and five times the cargo of a London ship; weather-beaten traders that had come over the North Sea with cargoes of salt fish; and many others.
The scene was never twice the same, and the boy never tired of it. Coming into port with a cargo of spices and wine was a long Mediterranean galley with oars as well as sails, each oar pulled by a slave who kept time with his neighbor like a machine. The English made their bid for fortune with the sailing-ship, and even in the twelfth century, when their keels were rarely seen in any Eastern port, there was little of the rule of wind and sea short of Gibraltar that their captains did not know.
Up Mart Lane, the steep little street from the wharves, Nicholas heard some one singing a familiar chantey, but not as the sailors sing it. He was a slender youth with a laugh in his eye, and he was singing to a guitar-like lute. He was piecing out the chantey and fitting words to it, and succeeding rather well. Nicholas stood by his father's warehouse, hands behind him and eyes on the ship just edging out to catch the tide, and listened to the song, his heart full of dreams.
"Hey, there, youngster!" said the singer kindly as he reached the end of the strophe. "Have you a share in that ship that you watch her so sharply?"
"No," said Nicholas gravely, "she's not one of father's ships. She's the Heath Hen of Weymouth, and she's loaded with wool, surely, but she's for Bordeaux."
"Bless the urchin, he might have been born on board!" The young man looked at Nicholas rather more attentively. "Your father has ships, then?"
Nicholas nodded proudly. "The Rose-in-June, and the Sainte Spirite, and the Thomasyn,—she's named for mother,— and the Sainte Genevieve, because father was born in Paris, you know, and the Saint Nicholas,—that's named for me. But I'm not old enough to have a venture yet. Father says I shall some day."
The Pool of the Thames was crowded, and as the wind freshened the ships looked even more like huge white-winged birds. Around them sailed and wheeled and fluttered the real sea-birds, picking up their living from the scraps thrown overboard,—swans, gulls, wild geese and ducks, here and there a strange bird lured to the harbor by hope of spoil. The oddly mated companions, the man and the boy, walked along busy Thames Street and came to Tower Hill and the great gray fortress-towers, with a double line of wall coiled around the base, just outside the City of London. The deep wide moat fed from the river made an island for the group of buildings with the square White Tower in the middle.
"None of your friends live there, I suppose?" the young man inquired, and Nicholas smiled rather dubiously, for he was not certain whether it was a joke or not. The Tower had been prison, palace and fort by turns, but common criminals were not imprisoned there —only those who had been accused of crimes against the State. "Lucky you," the youth added. "London is much pleasanter as a residence, I assure you. I lodged not far from here when I first came, but now I lodge—"
That sentence was never finished. Clattering down Tower Hill came a troop of horse, and one, swerving suddenly, caught Nicholas between his heels and the wall, and by the time the rider had his animal under control the little fellow was lying senseless in the arms of the stranger, who had dived in among the flying hoofs and dragged him clear. The rider, lagging behind the rest, looked hard at the two, and then spurred on without even stopping to ask whether he had hurt the boy.
Before Nicholas had fairly come to himself he shut his teeth hard to keep from crying out with the pain in his side and left leg. The young man had laid him carefully down close by the wall, and just as he was looking about for help three of the troopers came spurring back, dismounted, and pressed close around the youth as one of them said something in French. He straightened up and looked at them, and in spite of his pain, Nicholas could not help noticing that he looked proudly and straighforwardly, as if he were a gentleman born. He answered them in the same language; they shook their heads and made gruff, short answers. The young man laid his hand on his dagger, hesitated, and turned back to Nicholas.
"Little lad," he said, "this is indeed bad fortune. They will not let me take you home, but—" So deftly that the action was hidden from the men who stood by, he closed Nicholas' hand over a small packet, while apparently he was only searching for a coin in his pouch and beckoning to a respectable-looking market-woman who halted near by just then. He added in a quick low tone without looking at the boy, "Keep it for me and say nothing."
Nicholas nodded and slipped the packet into the breast of his doublet, with a groan which was very real, for it hurt him to move that arm. The young man rose and as his captors laid heavy hands upon him he put some silver in the woman's hand, saying persuasively, "This boy has been badly hurt. I know not who he is, but see that he gets home safely."
"Aye, master," said the woman compassionately, and then everything grew black once more before Nicholas' eyes as he tried to see where the men were going. When he came to himself they were gone, and he told the woman that he was Nicholas Gay and that his father was Gilbert Gay, in Fenchurch Street. The woman knew the house, which was tile-roofed and three-storied, and had a garden; she called a porter and sent him for a hurdle, and they got Nicholas home.
The merchant and his wife were seriously disturbed over the accident,—not only because the boy was hurt, and hurt in so cruel a way, but because some political plot or other seemed to be mixed up in it. From what the market-woman said it looked as if the men might have been officers of the law, and it was her guess that the young man was an Italian spy. Whatever he was, he had been taken in at the gates of the Tower. In a city of less than fifty thousand people, all sorts of gossip is rife about one faction and another, and if Gilbert Gay came to be suspected by any of the King's advisors there were plenty of jealous folk ready to make trouble for him and his. Time went by, however, and they heard nothing more of it.
Nicholas said nothing, even to his mother, of the packet which he had hidden under the straw of his bed. It was sealed with a splash of red wax over the silken knot that tied it, and much as he desired to know what was inside, Nicholas had been told by his father that a seal must never be broken except by the person who had a right to break it. Gilbert Gay had also told his children repeatedly that if anything was given to them, or told them, in confidence, it was most wrong to say a word about it. It never occurred to Nicholas that perhaps his father would expect him to tell of this. The youth had told him not to tell, and he must not tell, and that was all about it.
The broken rib and the bruises healed in time, and by the season when the Rose-in-June was due to sail, Nicholas was able to limp into the rose-garden and play with his little sister Genevieve at sailing rose-petal boats in the fountain. The time of loading the ships for a foreign voyage was always rather exciting, and this was the best and fastest of them all. When she came back, if the voyage had been fortunate, she would be laden with spices and perfumes, fine silks and linen, from countries beyond the sunrise where no one that Nicholas knew had ever been. From India and Persia, Arabia and Turkey, caravans of laden camels were even then bringing her cargo across the desert. They would be unloaded in such great market-places as Moussoul, Damascus, Bagdad and Cairo, the Babylon of those days. Alexandria and Constantinople, Tyre and Joppa, were seaport market-cities, and here the Venetian and Genoese galleys, or French ships of Marseilles and Bordeaux, or the half-Saracen, half-Norman traders of Messina came for their goods.
The Rose-in-June would touch at Antwerp and unload wool for Flemish weavers to make into fine cloth; she would cruise around the coast, put in at Bordeaux, and sell the rest of her wool, and the grain of which England also had a plenty. She might go on to Cadiz, or even through the Straits of Gibraltar to Marseilles and Messina. The more costly the stuff which she could pack into the hold for the homeward voyage, the greater for profit for all concerned.
Since wool takes up far more room in proportion to its value than silk, wine or spices, money as well as merchandise must be put into the venture, and the more money, the more profit. Others joined in the venture with Master Gay. Edrupt the wool-merchant furnished a part of the cargo on his own account; wool-merchants traveled through the country as agents for Master Gay. The men who served in the warehouse put in their share; even the porters and apprentices sent something, if no more than a shilling. There was some profit also in the passenger trade, especially in time of pilgrimage when it was hard to get ships enough for all who wished to go. The night before the sailing, Nicholas escaped from the happy hubbub and went slowly down to the wharves. It was not a very long walk, but it tired him, and he felt rather sad as he looked at the grim gray Tower looming above the river, and wondered if the owner of the packet sealed with the red seal would ever come back.
As he passed the little church at the foot of Tower Hill a light step came up behind him, and two hands were placed on his shoulders.
"My faith!" said the young man. "Have you been here all this time?"
'Have you been here all this time?'
He was thinner and paler, but the laughter still sparkled in his dark eyes, and he was dressed in daintily embroidered doublet, fine hose, and cloak of the newest fashion, a gold chain about his neck and a harp slung from his shoulder. A group of well-dressed servants stood near the church.
"I'm well now," said Nicholas rather shyly but happily. "I'm glad you have come back."
"I was at my wit's end when I thought of you, lad," went on the other, "for I remembered too late that neither of us knew the other's name, and if I had told mine or asked yours in the hearing of a certain rascal it might have been a sorry time for us both. They made a little mistake, you see,—they took me for a traitor."
"How could they?" said Nicholas, surprised and indignant.
"Oh, black is white to a scared man's eyes," said his companion light-heartedly. "How have your father's ships prospered?"
"There's one of them,"—Nicholas pointed, proudly, across the little space of water, to the Rose-in-June tugging at her anchor.
"She's a fine ship," the young man said consideringly, and then, as he saw the parcel Nicholas was taking from his bosom, "Do you mean to say that that has never been opened? What sort of folk are you?"
"I never told," said Nicholas, somewhat bewildered. "You said I was not to speak of it."
"And there was no name on it, for a certain reason." The young man balanced the parcel in his hand and whistled softly. "You see, I was expecting to meet hereabouts a certain pilgrim who was to take the parcel to Bordeaux,—and beyond. I was —interfered with, as you know, and now it must go by a safe hand to one who will deliver it to this same pilgrim. I should say that your father must know how to choose his captains."
"My father is Master Gilbert Gay,"—Nicholas held his head very straight—"and that is Master Garland, the captain of the Rose-in-June, coming ashore now."
"Oh, I know him. I have had dealings with him before now. How would it be—since without your good help this packet would almost certainly have been lost—to let the worth of it be your venture in the cargo?"
"My venture?" Nicholas stammered, the color rising in his cheeks. "My venture?"
"It is not worth much in money," the troubadour said with a queer little laugh, "but it is something. Master Garland, I see you have not forgotten me,—Ranulph, called le Provençal. Here is a packet to be delivered to Tomaso the physician of Padua, whom you know. The money within is this young man's share in your cargo, and Tomaso will pay you for your trouble."
Master Garland grinned broadly in his big beard. "Surely, sure-ly," he chuckled, and pocketed the parcel as if it had been an apple, but Nicholas noted that he kept his hand on the pouch as he went on to the wharf.
"And now," Ranulph said, as there was a stir in the crowd by the church door,evidently someone was coming out. "I must leave you, my lad. Some day we shall meet again." Then he went hastily away to join a brilliant company of courtiers in traveling attire. Things were evidently going well with Ranulph.
Nicholas thought a great deal about that packet in the days that followed. He took to experimenting with various things to see what could account for the weight. Lead was heavy, but no one would send a lump of lead of that size over seas. The same could be said of iron. He bethought him finally of a goldsmith's nephew with whom he had acquaintance. Guy Bouverel was older, but the two boys knew each other well.
"Guy," he said one day, "what's the heaviest metal you ever handled?"
"Gold," said Guy promptly.
" A bag that was too heavy to have silver in it would have gold?"
"I should think so. Have you found treasure?"
"No," said Nicholas, "I was wondering."
The Rose-in-June came back before she was due. Master Garland came up to the house with Gilbert Gay, one rainy evening when Nicholas and Genevieve were playing nine-men's-morris in a corner and their mother was embroidering a girdle by the light of a bracket lamp. Nicholas had been taught not to interrupt, and he did not, but he was glad when his mother said gently, but with shining eyes, "Nicholas, come here."
It was a queer story that Captain Garland had to tell, and nobody could make out exactly what it meant. Two or three years before he had met Ranulph, who was then a troubadour in the service of Prince Henry of Anjou, and he had taken a casket of gold pieces to Tomaso the physician, who was then in Genoa.
"They do say," said Captain Garland, pulling at his russet beard, "that the old doctor can do anything short o'raising the dead. They fair worshiped him there, I know. But it's my notion that that box o' gold pieces wasn't payment for physic."
"Probably not," said the merchant smiling. "Secret messengers are more likely to deliver their messages if no one knows they have any. But what happened this time?"
"Why," said the sea captain, "I found the old doctor in his garden, with a great cat o' Malta stalking along beside him, and I gave him the packet. He opened it and read the letter, and then he untied a little leather purse and spilled out half a dozen gold pieces and some jewels that fair made me blink—not many, but beauties—rubies and emeralds and pearls. He beckoned toward the house and a man in pilgrim's garb came out and valued the jewels. Then he sent me back to the Rose-in-June with the worth o' the jewels in coined gold and this ring here. 'Tell the boy,' says he, 'that he saved the King's jewels, and that he has a better jewel than all of them, the jewel of honor.' "
"But, father," said Nicholas, rather puzzled, "what else could I do?"
None of them could make anything of the mystery, but as Tomaso of Padua talked with Eloy the goldsmith that same evening they agreed that the price they paid was cheap. In the game the Pope's party was playing against that of the Emperor for the mastery of Europe, it had been deemed advisable to find out whether Henry Plantagenet would rule the Holy Roman Empire if he could. He had refused the offer of the throne of the Cæsars, and it was of the utmost importance that no one should know that the offer had been made. Hence the delivery of the letter to the jeweler.