In the second year of the reign of Henry V, 1415
“Be not so loud, Griff, the lad will wake,” Casse whispered.
“We’ll have to wake him soon enough and get him out afore he catches the illness. If only we had not gone to the fair. They were dropping like flies. Haps we should not have come back to bring the pestilence home.” Griff tried to rise up to his elbows on the pallet he shared with his wife, but could not manage even that, and fell back, exhausted. The linens beneath them both were soaked with perspiration. “Damn, but I hate this weakness.”
“We must get him to your father’s or he’ll land on the parish. ” Casse whispered again, insistently. “But how? He can’t go the way all alone. He has but six years to his name.”
“London?” Griff scoffed, “No challenge for the boy. It’s a strong lad, he is, and with a wild creature’s sense of direction. But he’d not end up on the parish. Soon as they know we’ve got the sweats, they’ll quarantine, board up the house, and he’ll die with us. Best he go now to London, and become a ships captain like my father.”
“Not so loud, Griff, the lad--,”
“I am awake. I hear you. We’re going to London.” the boy said, standing and rubbing his eyes. “It be near to dawn. When we go to London, we always go at dawn.” He yawned hugely as he rolled a change of clothes into a packet and tied it with string. “We go now?”
“Not we, lad. You’ve got to visit your grandfather in London. Alone.”
The boy hesitated. There was a long silence, as he looked back at them, comprehending.
“Take the coins,” Casse said, her eyes full of tears. “Under the big stone by the hearth. I love you, my boy.”
“You’ll need them,” the boy argued back.
“Take the coins as your mother says,” his father commanded, sternly. “Tie the pouch about your waist and show it to none but your grandfather. Go to his office by the docks. You can apprentice to him and one day captain one of his carracks. It fair broke his heart I chose to be a lubber.” He put up his hand to stop the boy’s approach, “No, there, don’t come close to us. You must,” he swallowed, “be strong for us all. Go on then, and close the door behind you. There’s a brave lad.”
“Oh” The boy turned and adjusted his pack. He stood waiting with his hand on the bolt, his back straight. “Goodbye then.” When there was no answer, he closed the door softly. Inside, he could just hear the muffled sounds of his mother’s sobs. He squared his small shoulders, turned north and started for London.
Fortunately for Griffin, the sky was clear and the roads were dry. The familiar track he walked turned to a larger trail bordered on all sides by Lord Sanford’s fields, all tended by farm families, just as his own father worked Sanford’s land. Even though Sanford was only fifteen years older than Griffin, the twenty-two year old Earl was a more generous master than older, less important feudal lords. So, whenever it seemed auspicious, while still on his own lord’s land, Griffin snatched a peach, apple or pear off a tree, or dug out a carrot, turnip or onion, or uprooted a celery or squash. As he packed away the provisions, he wondered what it would be like to be so favored of the king to be given rooms in the royal court. Once it had been rumored that the young earl had been sequestered in the tower with the boy king of Scotland, but that had been a misunderstanding over and done with long ago. Perhaps when Griffin was in London, he would drop by the royal palace and say hello to the earl. Then the earl could send a leech to cure his parents.
The trail eventually made its way to a narrow but distinct path to the local tavern, the Cup and Barrel. No one noted a boy alone, and he took care to be inconspicuous. A brisk wind dried the tears on his face, and though his feet kept taking that one next step, in his mind replayed the argument that had waked him that morn. The pouch containing every ha’ penny of his parents’ lifesavings dragged heavily around his waist. By nightfall, he made himself a bed in an empty stall in the stable behind the Cup and Barrel. The tavern saw a significant amount of traffic. It was easy enough to strike up conversations with the coming and going carriage boys, and glean from them the direction of London. He even managed to talk a sack full of meat pasties from the tavern’s cook, who had recognized him and asked about Casse and Griff.
By the next evening, whenever the well-traveled country lane rose to a hill, he could just make out the spires of the city. He bedded down in a rick of hay, but after the fourth night when he had made the city, he had no idea how to find the docks. He just kept walking until he was well-mired in the muddle of streets and edifaces, and completely off track. He walked until he was exhausted, until finally he sat on an ironmonger’s stoop and cried like a baby, but the shopkeeper came with his broom and chased him away.
Finding a place to sleep was harder when there were no ricks of hay, no fields or wide-slung trees with capacious branches. The stables were all behind wrought iron gates.
He had been to the city before to see his grandfather, but he had never been there alone. The rush of crowds filled him with awe and no little fear. The morass of coaches, wagons, hacks, and riders was an amazement in itself. He stood on the street corner, goggling over the conveyance, when a fine lady with white, high piled hair gave him a coin. He hoped she had not seen him crying. She was squired by a most elegant gentleman who must be quite as fine as ever the Earl of Sanford was. The elegant gentleman bowed quite elegantly to a passerby who also made a leg. Griffin goggled at the refined manners, then decided to ape them.
Proudly, he bowed, exactly like the gentlemen. He tried to return the coin. “I am no beggar miss, but am looking for my grandfather’s ship.”
“Aren’t you a clever lad,” the lady said with a curtsey. Griffin tried pressing the coin into the lady’s hand but the fine sir knocked away his grubby fingers.
“Filthy rat! You’re not fit to touch Milady’s skirts!” the gentleman hissed. The coin dropped to the cobbles. His mother would have been appalled at the state of his nails, and, embarrassed, he hid his hands behind his back.
Looking at him with some disgust, the gentleman tried to pull the lady away, but she insisted that the fine sir point out the direction of the river Thames, and explain the location of the docks. She argued quite vehemently with her escort, that he should convey the lad to his uncle’s very office. Griffin’s spirits rose at the thought of riding in that very high-class carriage, but it was not to be.
“Take the penny and buy yourself a loaf from a vender,” the lady insisted as the fine lordship dragged her away, mumbling about street rats. Quick as a cat, a bone fide street rat half Griffin’s size snatched up the coin, laughing in joy at his good fortune, and taunting him in some barely unrecognizable cant. Being a kind boy and still well-fed, not to mention being secretly loaded down with coin, Griffin did not begrudge the grimy youngster his good fortune. But he was lonely.
In fact, the street boy snagged his curiosity as well as his penny. Griffin made note of the direction of the docks, then followed the little boy to a street vendor where Griffin watched the lad barter like a miser. The vendor was as wretched a soul as ever there was, with broken teeth, filthy hair and clothes and an enormous wart on his nose, but after biting the coin, he gave the little street rat a great pile of rather wretched looking fodder. Griffin followed the boy through steadily worsening backstreets to a wretched alley where the boy hunkered down protectively and ate his fill. Finally he moved on to another place where he was met other little boys with whom he shared his leftovers. With some scorn, Griffin saw the make-shift shelter where they went to sleep, then feeling rather superior, made for the docks, finding at last his grandfather’s offices in Cheapside. He nodded off to sleep on the stoop where he was undisturbed until well past dawn, when a clerk came to unlock the office. He was rudely awakened when said clerk whacked him with his cane and told him to begone.
“I’ve come to find Captain Griffin Welles,” Griffin announced proudly.
“Well he’s not here, as you well see.” The clerk straightened his coat and unlocked the office door.
“If he is off at sea then, please direct me to his lodgings.”
“How the devil should I know his lodgings?”
“These are his offices,” Griffin pointed out the small placard on the door, “Griffin Wells Shipping,” he read slowly. “You work for him.”
The clerk was clearly taken aback that he could read. “Sign or no, they’re not his offices any more,” he insisted, “And he’s not at sea, guttersnipe, but lost his ship, his shirt and his small clothes, I daresay. I neither know nor care what happened to the wretch.” Griffin dodged another whack from the cane.
Any other six year old would have sat right there and cried until someone came to appease him, but not Griffin. He searched the docks for what he remembered of his grandfather’s ship. It was a distinctive single-masted carrack. He wandered the dockside offices, asking everyone he saw. There was many a sailor who scratched his head and nodded, remembering Captain Welles, but no one seemed to know where he had got himself to.
Before it was dark, he headed back toward Cheapside. Griffin was making his way down an alley only slightly less narrow than his shoulders when he was startled by a cadaverous, scraggly-haired boy hiding in the shadow. He felt quite trapped, not wanting to retrace his steps, but not wanting to walk forward and confront this stranger.
“He—Hello?” he ventured nervously. The strange boy said nothing. Up close Griffin crept, and realized he’d been talking to a broom, and a wretched broom at that. Half bald, and loosely tied, the top end cracked, it had been discarded and now leaned against a junk heap. He laughed, embarrassed, looking around to see if anyone had seen him talking to a broom. He took up the broom, twisted off the broken end. It shed even more of its precariously secured broom straw, but he shoved it back, and wound the string as tight as he could. He made his way to the first bakery he saw, broom carried jauntily over his shoulder. He never thought of spending a coin, but offered to sweep up the baker’s shop in return for a loaf. The proprietor chased him away with a broom three times the size of the one he’d been hoping to use to earn his bread.
But that didn’t stop Griffin. He went to the next shop, and the next, and the one after that, until at last a thin, sallow clerk agreed to give him a piece of a penny for sweeping up.