St. Pantaleon Day, in the eighth year of King Richard II
Young Jack often asks me why I have chosen my current profession. Of course, “choice” is a matter of perspective. Had I truly had a choice I would not being doing so at all. I should not be living on the Shambles, I should not be housing a cutpurse, I should not be mingling amongst the lower classes.
But such is choice.
When, eight years ago, I was cast out of court, it was in a state of disbelief. Already somewhat starved and certainly in poor health from my stay in Newgate, I confess to a certain amount of confusion. The fact that I was alive was foremost my greatest cause of disbelief. And that now I was a pauper in the strictest sense was incredible. When one lives on an estate one can be low on funds to the point of near poverty, but there is always some source of income. The tenants’ rent can be raised, the produce and stock sold, plate broken and bartered. But this was different. So different. And none of my kinsmen–though few there were–were allowed to help me, if indeed they were so inclined.
No, it took me a full week to understand my complete predicament. I spent the night in entryways, on church porches, and–God help me–in privies. Shelter was shelter. And after full starvation grasped its skeletal hands about my neck, I finally got myself to the almsdoor of the monesteries. I made the acquaintance of a kind monk or two, especially at Westminster Abbey, and fed myself from its meager charity.
But this could not go on. I had been a knight, a lord of a manor. Men in my predicament took to the highways and robbed strangers for their meat and coin. It took less than a heartbeat for me to decide that this I would never do. It was I who had gotten myself in this state. How could I take what was not mine, even by necessity?
I had no prospects. I was in the same red cote-hardie I had been arrested in some six months prior. My clothing was filthy. I stank. Who would take me in?
As befitting my state, I took the job as a gong farmer, those poor fools who cleaned out the privies. I did this for six months. When I had enough coin to get myself cleaner and in better order, I hired myself as a henchman. It was certainly not my preferred task and little better I was than a highwayman, but it earned more coin and a place of shelter.
From thence, I fell into the occupation of a scribe, for I measured my skills and found that I could take on the work of a clerk when required. I met Gilbert and Eleanor Langton about that time, acquainting myself with the taste of the wine at the Boar’s Tusk and learning to like it. And learning to appreciate the tender kindness from the tavern’s proprietors as well.
When my master’s wife lost a valuable necklace, it was by my shrewd diligence and careful questioning that I found not only the culprit but the necklace itself, that I began to wonder if there was such a need for a private sheriff, a man to go to if one was in need but who didn’t want the eye of the crown turned in his direction. I soon found many such men needed a private sheriff and it was not long until I became he. They called me the Tracker, for as a hunter finds the tracks of its prey, so, too, did I. The name seemed fitting.
So choice, Young Jack, is in the eye of the beholder. Though it pays less than my work as a clerk, for the wage is not as regular as that of a man with a quill, I much prefer to work for myself, to be my own master as I was used to. That is worth more gold than I used to possess.