Some months later — as Malcolm continued to grow in my confidence and alongside Quidnunc’s jealousy — the young man said to me one morning as he was holding my shirt, having warmed it in the usual way by wearing it for a few minutes (well, a nobleman does it for the king, so why not a trusted servant for me?), “I met an old townsman who fought with your uncle at Agincourt, my lord, who says he knows a lot about the history of your family. Shall I bring him to you?”
I was sceptical.
“How old is this greybeard? That’s nearly fifty years ago, Mal.”
“Well, sir, he thinks he’s about eighty-five but his great-grandson — he’s a pal of mine, sir — thinks he’s even older than that.”
“What? A likely tale, Mal.”
The lad’s face, as he put on my shoes, looked disappointed.
“Bring him to see me anyway. Not today. After hunting, I’ll be far too tired and you can pour me a nice scented bath. Bring him tomorrow, after breakfast.”
I liked to see the lad happy. His smile lit up the day.
The next morning, he brought the old retainer to me. He looked like Methuselah, with his wispy white hair, a stick and a very small lad to lean on.
“God be with you, old fellow. Prithee take a seat.”
“If Your Lordship please, I never sat before Earl Michael and I won’t sit before Your Lordship, so please you.”
“So, you were at Agincourt with my uncle Michael, were you? Tell me about the battle.”
“Nay, my lord, I wasn’t at Agincourt. I was never out of England. Always serving Your Lordship’s house.”
I was getting bored with this and began rereading a letter on my reading stand from the B.M. where she told me about the birth of John and Elizabeth’s second son who, with the king’s permission, was to be christened Edmund. My presence at the ceremony would not be required…
“He was a good lord to his people was your uncle, my lord, and very straight and true… Different like from his father, the first Earl Michael, the one that was chancellor to the late lamented King Richard. God rest his soul…”
My grandfather, the first Earl of Suffolk, had died in 1389.
“You remember my grandfather?”
“Oh aye, may it please Your Lordship. I was taken into his service as a very young lad… I was a pretty lad and he was very fond of me was Earl Michael…” He looked directly at me. It was impudent, but I got the message.
“How nice. Did you leave the city?”
“Oh yes, my lord, he… found me here on one of his visits to the palace and took a fancy to me and took me as his… page, you see, sir. and he took me down to London, sir, in the mid-eighties when he was chancellor to good King Richard, sir… I saw King Richard, sir, and, saving your presence, sir, he was a bit mad, sir, at times, sir. And your grandfather took the blow, sir, when things went badly wrong… He was a fine-looking man your granddaddy, sir, not unlike yourself, sir, if you’ll pardon me. And so was your other granddaddy Master Chaucer, the poet, my lord…”
This was becoming rather more than real; sir-real, you might call it.
“You remember Geoffrey Chaucer, my great-grandfather, old man?”
“Oh yes, sir, he was a great man at King Richard’s court. With such presence, sir, such nobility. More nobility than the nobility you might say, sir, if you’ll forgive me.”
“Bring this old man some hippocras! This is remarkable and I insist you sit on that stool. Bring it nearer, boy.”
“As you wish, my lord. I really loved your grandfather, sir, though he wasn’t always kind, my lord. He was like the wind. When he blue cold, you got out of his way. But when he blew hot… he was a wonderful, worshipful lord, sir.”
There were tears in his eyes.
“He died in exile in Paris, sir… I wanted to go with him, sir, but he sent me back to ‘ull, my lord, on a whim. He was blowing cold that day, you see…”
He went into a reverie, which I didn’t like to disturb. And he had sent me into one of my own.
Then he said, “And there was a ring, my lord, a ring he gave me in trust for his sons. But I never gave it to them, my lord, and my conscience is playing me up in my great age so here, my lord…” He produced from a rather festering leather pouch, an ethereally beautiful gold ring with an enormous ruby clasped in place by a golden hand. “It belongs to you, my lord. It had come from his father, Sir William, who founded the De-la-Pole fortunes, my lord, and didn’t he have his troubles with old King Edward…”
“I thank you, good old man.” I searched around the solar. “Take this bag of crowns and I will see to it that you and your family never go hungry. This is beautiful…”
And it truly was.
“One other thing, my friend. Did you ever know where or whom Sir William got the ring from originally?”
He smiled; he still had quite a few teeth. He sipped the hippocras contentedly. I only served the best.
“Well… if Your Lordship’s grandfather is to be believed — and he wasn’t always — Sir Michael had been given it by his grandmother. She was an old Jewlady…”
“What?” This was not welcome news.
“She was an old Jewlady called Rifka Rottenherring — they were in the fish business, you see, from Hamburg or Gothenberg or someplace overseas — and she told him this was an old family heirloom that one day would belong to a king. Earl Michael — the one who was chancellor, you remember? — told me he had thought about giving it to King Richard, but then thought better of it. He was right, don’t you think, my lord? Seeing how kings have treated your noble family…”
He sighed a great sigh, so did I, not believing — or wishing to believe — the latter part of his story. There have been no Jews in England — at least, legally — since the time of King Edward I who expelled them. I had never met one and considered them to be unreliable, even devilish, alien heretics. To be told I might be descended from one of them was an unpleasant shock. But it also inspired a frisson of excitement.
I looked down at the ring. It looked bigger and darker. I quickly put it into the inner pocket of my doublet.
“Thank you, my friend.” I called for Malcolm. “Malcolm. See to it that this good old man and his family get food and coals and whatever they need every month from my cellars. He has done me and our family good service.”
When the old man had left, I turned to Malcolm. “An interesting old fellow. But you never told me his name.”
“Rottenherring, my lord. Alfred Rottenherring.”
It was around this time — or was it on a later visit to that wonderful metropolis of Kingston upon Dull? I seemed to spend
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