Copyright © 2015 by Barbara Davies.

Warnings

This story may not be sold or used for profit in any way. Copies of it may be made for private use only and must include all copyright notices, warnings and acknowledgements.

Author's notes

I've been writing this historical uber for far too many years, and the more research I've done, the more I've found that sources either don't exist or they contradict one another. What the heck - this is fiction. If it doesn't match the facts, hey, I did my best.

I'd like to thank Val, who read an earlier version of this story, for her encouragement during the long slog. Since her involvement, I've added bits and taken them away again (a writer never knows when to stop tweaking), so any typos/errors are mine. But I feel the time has come to post the thing and be damned. :-)

The King's Favour

by

Barbara Davies

(Email: bhdavies@cheltenham1.demon.co.uk )


PROLOGUE

Friday, 5th September 1651

Hooves squelched and harnesses jingled as the horses made their way along the muddy lane. Nan watched them pass with narrowed eyes from behind the hedge. The riders' cropped hair barely covered their ears, and their clothes were without adornment. Parliamentary troops, likely searching for fugitives from Worcester . Madeley was rife with rumours of the bloody battle there two days ago. The city had been massacred but the King had escaped, so they said. And now the woods and fields were crawling with men eager to claim the £1,000 Cromwell had placed on his head.

The moon went behind a cloud, and she breathed a little easier. The Roundheads scouring the countryside were making life difficult, but she hadn't wanted to leave her traps unchecked. It would have been cruel to any creatures not yet dead; besides, the presence of so many soldiers meant her uncle's tavern was doing a roaring trade, and her aunt would accept the rabbit she had caught, no questions asked, and give her sixpence for it.

She considered what she could buy with sixpence. And then what she could buy with £1,000. No more chores around the tavern, no more poaching. She'd have a grand house in London and a carriage and horses to travel in, fine clothes and a maid to dress her.

A loud rustling jolted her back to awareness. The riders were out of earshot by now, so the sound must have come from further along the hedge. A squirrel or stoat? Or a lurking Roundhead hoping she had been lulled into a false sense of security. She held her breath.

"Who's there?" came a whisper. "Penderel? Is that you?"

A shadow detached itself from the hedge and a twig snapped underfoot. Whoever it was was no woodsman. With any luck, he would walk right past her.

"In God's name, man," came the whisper again. "Why don't you answer?"

At that moment, the clouds parted, bathing the lane in moonlight. A man, two yards tall at least, was standing three paces from her. Mud clung to his boots, his steeple-crowned hat was bedraggled, and the recent rain had soaked his doublet, green jerkin, and breeches. An acrid scent of the river wafted to her nostrils. Perhaps not rain.

"God's body!" His eyes widened as he raked her from head to toe. "A woman? In men's clothing?" He pushed back his hat's brim to get a clearer look.

She tucked a stray strand of hair inside her cap, and returned his scrutiny. His nose was too large for his dirt-smeared face, and whoever had sheared his hair had made a poor job of it.

"A poacher too." He glanced after the disappearing militia. "Then we must both be glad they did not see us."

A shared plight didn't mean Nan could trust him. She turned to go. Two fields and a wood lay between her and her tavern home, and she had a longing for her bed. She jogged across the lane, pushed her way through the hazel hedge, and set off across the field beyond it.

"Wait."

Concerned the man's shout would attract attention, she stopped and glanced back. He was limping after her across the field, which had once held barley but now awaited the farmer's plough, and she wondered if he had turned his ankle then saw there was a simpler cause - his boots were too big.

"I ask your pardon, Madam," he panted. The stink of wet wool intensified as he drew nearer. "My travelling companion and I were parted while crossing the river so I must find my own way to the rendezvous ."

Nan had no idea what that word meant. French presumably. "What's that to do with me?"

"I venture you have little love for the Roundheads."

She didn't answer. These were perilous times to espouse beliefs, religious or political. For a while, royalist troops had been garrisoned in Madeley, but less than two months later, parliamentarian soldiers had occupied the church. The town was at present free of permanent troops of either persuasion, which suited her. A man's beliefs were his own affair, as long as they didn't impinge on her.

"You must know these parts well." He indicated the rabbit dangling from her fist. "Be my guide and you shall have my undying gratitude."

"Much good that will do me."

Her bluntness amused him. He removed a glove and extended the little finger of his left hand. A signet ring glinted in the moonlight. "Would you accept this as payment? I must reach Madeley before morning light. A man lives there, his name... what the devil was it?" His gaze turned inward. "Wolfe. Francis Wolfe."

Wolfe lived at Upper House in Church Street . He was a fervent Royalist sympathiser, and a Catholic. Suppose this were a trap to reveal him to his enemies? Nan liked him. What did she know of this stranger, other than that he wasn't what he seemed? His accent seemed to come and go.

"Please, Madam," he repeated, his tone urgent. "Will you guide me?" He slipped his glove back on, hiding the ring from sight.

She hesitated. She was going to Madeley anyway, and Upper House wasn't far out of her way. And that ring, though plain, had looked as if it had silver in it. "Follow me." Once more she set off across the field.

With a sigh of relief he followed her. He might limp, but his stride was longer than hers, and he had soon caught her up. "How old are you?"

"Thirteen."

"Ods fish! I took you for older. You're tall for a girl."

She shrugged, having lost count of the times people had remarked on it. Some meant it kindly but most didn't. Especially those near her own age. It didn't pay to be different, and she had learned to defend herself from jeers and stones.

"Do your parents know you're out poaching?"

"They're dead."

"My sympathies. It's hard to lose a father." He sounded as if he meant it.

"I never knew him," said Nan shortly. "It's my mother I miss."

"As do I. But not when I'm in her company." He chuckled. "Then, I cannot wait to leave her side."

From the corner of her eye Nan studied him. He was the type to always find the humour in a situation, she judged, no matter how black his circumstances. An intriguing fellow. Shame about that nose.

"You can keep the ring," she said on impulse.

Surprised, he flashed her a gleaming smile.

In the distance a dog barked, and she waved him to a halt. She listened hard, but could hear nothing out of the ordinary. A false alarm. She set off once more.

Once she was certain the lane on the other side was clear, they emerged from the final hedge. They had reached the outskirts of Madeley and her uncle's tavern lay straight ahead. Nan gave it a wistful glance before turning off towards Upper Street .

By now the man was wincing at every step. "What I'd give for a pair of my own boots," he muttered.

"Not far now."

"Praise God!"

That silhouette up ahead was Wolfe's hay barn, and beyond that lay their destination: Upper House. They had taken only a few steps towards it when a figure emerged from the shadows and made straight for them. Heart thumping, she halted, and with a sharp intake of breath, so did her companion. She reached for the knife in her belt; it was for despatching game and would provide little protection against a determined assailant, but it was better than nothing. Then the moon found a chink in the clouds and revealed their attacker: a mild-looking man, almost as tall and as muddy as her companion, though minus a hat.

"Will Jones?" came his loud whisper. "Is that you?" Squinting, he approached them, and once more the night breeze wafted the smell of river mud to her nostrils.

The man standing next to her, who had been taut as a bowstring and silent until now, let out a great sigh of relief. "Penderel? Aye. It is I. I feared you had drowned."

Pulse calming, Nan returned her knife to her belt.

"I almost did. My clothes weighed me down and I was washed downstream." Penderel's leather breeches squeaked with every step. "Then those cursed Roundheads arrived, and it was all I could do to keep out of their way."

"Least said, soonest mended. Shall we to Wolfe's house?"

"Aye, Your Maj- " Penderel broke off and regarded Nan with alarm, but the damage had been done.

With new eyes she stared at the bedraggled man standing next to her. In drawings, the young prince had always had flowing, dark ringlets not this shaggy crop, but those were the same liquid dark eyes and that nose was unmistakeable.

"My apologies." Penderel looked mortified.

"Fear not," said the King. "She means me no harm. Do you, Madam?"

A thousand pounds on his head, thought Nan . That house and carriage could be mine for the taking. I have but to alert the Watch. But the impulse vanished almost as soon as it had arisen, and she dropped to her knees. "Your Majesty."

The King's hand on her collar pulled her to her feet. "No time for formalities." He removed his glove and tugged the signet ring from his finger. "Here." He held it out.

Nan flushed. "I told you. There is no need-"

"For services rendered. Take it before I change my mind." After a moment she did, and gaped at the ring resting on her palm. "You have earned it this night. What is your name?"

She pulled her scattered wits together. " Nan Simkin."

"Keep it safe, Nan , as you will keep me safe by apprising no one of my presence."

"I will, Your Majesty." She folded her fingers around the ring.

He gave her an approving nod. "It is but a trifle. But one day, God willing, you may redeem it for a favour. And that , I wager, might be worth a good deal more."

She was still wondering how to reply when she realised his attention had shifted to Penderel. As if in sympathy, the moon retreated behind the clouds, then, with no further discussion and without a backward glance, the two men - King Charles II of England and his loyal guide - headed towards Upper House.

Silently, Nan watched them go.

***


Monday, 3rd October 1664

Phebe hitched up her satchel, glad it was becoming lighter with each delivery, and turned onto Greater Drury Lane. Several of her father's customers lived in Covent Garden - one even resided in the opulent piazza - and paid extra to have their prescriptions brought from Walbrook. A local apothecary, such as Finch's in Russell Street , would have served their needs as well, but they preferred her father's electuary antidotes (perhaps because he always took care to add extra honey). The four mile walk here and back was a chore, especially as it had been raining hard, but she supposed she shouldn't grumble - she had as much of a stake in their shop's success as Father did, if not more. Sometimes, though, she wished he would employ an errand boy for the task.

She was about to leave the shelter of the jettied first storeys and cross the wide, paved road with the gutter running down its centre, when a window above her creaked open and the contents of someone's chamberpot landed just ahead of her. Wrinkling her nose, she backed away and tried her luck a few yards further along.

While she was waiting for a rumbling carriage to pass, a signboard dripping water down her neck, someone cannoned into her. "I beg your-"

A squint-eyed man in a stained doublet and breeches wrenched the satchel from her shoulder, tucked it under one arm, and hared off down Drury Lane . It was a moment before she could gather her wits.

"Stop, thief!" she shouted after him, and rubbed her aching shoulder.

The occupant of a sedan chair refused to allow his two chairmen to assist Phebe, and a chimney sweep and his boy, burdened by brushes, also showed no inclination to help. It was up to her. With a gloved hand, she lifted her skirts and gave chase. But the thief sensed she was on his tail, speeded up, then eeled right and vanished.

London was a maze of winding back alleys, and if he had disappeared down one of them.... Running footsteps were echoing from a ten-foot wide passage, enclosed by buildings on both sides, and she halted at its mouth and gazed down it. There was her quarry! But he was slowing, his head turning from side to side, and it dawned on her, as it must have on the thief, that the passage was a dead end.

As she watched, a tall figure in a plumed black hat and scarlet cloak emerged from the building that blocked the far end - a recent, three-tiered, wooden structure with a cupola on its roof.

"Stop thief!" shouted Phebe, cupping her hands around her mouth.

The cloaked figure glanced in her direction, and, without further ado, drew his sword, reversed it, and hit the thief in the face with its hilt. The blow was hard enough to loosen his grip, and the swordsman relieved him of the satchel and stepped back. For a moment Phebe feared the thief might go after his prize again, but instead he set off at a stumbling run back along the passage towards her.

A loud bellow followed him. "Aye, run, dog. Thou hast more wit than to fight with me."

Phebe pressed her back to a wall as the panting thief ran past. He stank of fear and sweat and was trying to staunch the blood streaming from his nose and down the front of his doublet. As he disappeared down Drury Lane in the direction of The Strand, she returned her gaze to the passage and saw her rescuer strolling towards her, sword in one hand, satchel in the other.

"Yours, I believe, Madam." He handed it to her, then removed his hat with a flourish, advanced one leg, and made her a sweeping bow. He smelled very faintly of cinnamon.

"Oh, thank you." She accepted the satchel with relief. "I am in your debt, Sir."

His lips twitched and she wondered what was so amusing. "Think nothing of it." As he donned his hat, he knocked the brown periwig askew, and she caught a glimpse of raven black hair. "He must have mistaken this passage for the next one. A stroke of luck, for if he'd taken Vinegar Yard your chances of catching him would have been slim."

She tore her gaze from his eyes, which were a striking pale blue, and turned her attention to the satchel's contents. The twists of paper, draughts, powders, pastilles, lozenges, and juleps were disordered but undamaged, thank heavens. Some liver pills had strayed from their packet and she tucked them back in.

"Medicines?" enquired her rescuer, who was attempting to sheathe his sword, but with little success. Frowning, he investigated the cause.

Phebe nodded. "I'm delivering them for my father. He's an apothecary." Closer to, the man looked far less splendid, and.... Phebe blinked in astonishment. Had his pencil-thin moustache been painted on?

"That kink is new. I must have hit him harder than I thought." He sighed. "Our props man is going to have my guts for garters."

Props man?

"Aren't you Nan Shelton?"

The enquiry came from a paunchy little man who had been observing the two of them with interest for some minutes. If the name ' Nan ' hadn't already done so, the brilliant smile that transformed her rescuer's face would have torn the scales from Phebe's eyes. The woman's unusual height had strengthened the illusion, as had the deep bellow she'd used to yell after the thief - a trick she was no longer using.

"Indeed I am, Sir."

"I saw you in The Rival Ladies. A fine play." The onlooker's eyes raked Nan from head to toe. "Is it to be another breeches role?"

"Aye. And all parts are to be played by actresses."

His eyes grew even wider. "What play is this, Mrs Shelton?"

"The Parson's Wedding."

"That old thing?" He looked disappointed. "I thought Tom Killigrew's characters were men and women."

"This production is different. His idea, or so he claims." Nan shrugged. "More likely he lost a bet. Not that I'm grumbling at the opportunity to play Mr Jolly."

"When do you open?"

"This Thursday at 3pm. But come early. The King and Lady Castlemaine will be in attendance and seats will be scarce."

"Thankee, Madam, I will." With that, he bowed farewell and hurried away. The actress's gaze followed him.

Phebe's curiosity got the better of her. "I do beg your pardon. I mistook you for a man. Are those your player's clothes?" She indicated Nan 's breeches

"Aye." Nan grinned. "I'm fresh from rehearsal. I came outside for a moment's peace and quiet - Mrs Knepp does go on, but don't tell her I said so. - only to find your thief bowling along the passage straight at me."

A babble of voices drew Phebe's eyes back towards the wooden building. More figures were emerging from its entrance, some carrying violins or trumpets. A playhouse, she realised. And since there were only two such establishments sanctioned in the whole of London and this was Covent Garden , it must be the King's.

But Nan was still speaking. "Have you far to go, Mrs-?"

"Bonnick," supplied Phebe. "To Walbrook. But I have more deliveries to make first."

"Almost the other side of the City. I hope your shoes are sturdier than mine." The soles on Nan 's shoes did look paper-thin.

Phebe shrugged. "I'm accustomed to the walk. And well wrapped against the cold and damp." She indicated her hooded cloak.

Then the people from the playhouse were upon them, and their leader - a short man with a limp and large, mournful eyes - was addressing Nan in shocked tones. "What are you doing out here in full costume? And what have you done to your sword?"

"All in a good cause, Mr Mohun. And nothing a hammer can't remedy. At least I hope so." She added in a low voice.

Some spots of rain wet Phebe's cheeks, and Nan 's too, as she regarded the darkening sky with a frown. "The heavens are about to open. I'd best return my costume and sword before I damage them further." She smiled at Phebe. "Come and see the play, Mrs Bonnick. As my guest, of course. Let me tell the admittance man to expect you. What day will suit you best?"

Her invitation and the confidence she would accept took Phebe aback. Until a moment ago, Nan had been a complete stranger, and the play hardly sounded suitable. An all-women cast, some wearing breeches? But it would be rude to refuse out of hand after the service Nan had done her. "Alas, I'm kept busy in the shop most afternoons."

"A pity. Still," a cheerful Nan went on, "if you change your mind, send me word." She gestured towards the playhouse. "Care of the King's Playhouse, Bridges Street ."

"I shall," said Phebe, though she had no intention of doing so. "Thank you again." She patted the satchel, now safely buckled. "Had this been stolen, our customers would have had to wait another day for their prescriptions."

Nan made her another extravagant bow. "Then I am glad indeed to have been of service."

***

Tuesday, 4th October 1664

As the last notes of Nan 's song died away, one of Sophia Hamilton's houseguests stood up and clapped more loudly than the rest. "You are a veritable nightingale," he cried.

"Why thank you, sir." Nan gave him a mock curtsey. "But it's surely our hostess's accomplished playing that deserves the true praise."

"Of course, of course." He gave the woman sitting at the virginals an embarrassed glance. "That goes without saying."

"Nevertheless, Mr Pope," said Sophia, smiling at his discomfort, "I shall not object if you do." Her tart reply drew a ripple of laughter from those gathered in her King Street drawing room, and Pope looked rueful as he resumed his seat.

For all her appearance of wealth and sophistication, Sophia was surprisingly insecure. Though perhaps it wasn't that surprising, Nan reflected. She had married 'up' and provided her lawyer husband with an heir, only to have him grow indifferent and turn his attentions elsewhere. As a result, she insisted on being the centre of Nan 's world or she became sulky - a mood that suited her almost as little as the green-and-white gown and salmon pink bodice she was wearing today. Sophia always took Lady Castlemaine as her model, but their colouring was different, and the dress served only to emphasise the sallowness of her complexion. But Nan had learned not to offer her wealthy patroness advice on such matters, as it left her out of sorts.

When Nan had arrived in London , fresh from the country, she had intended to make her living by her own endeavours. If it had not been for the actor who had become her husband, she would have starved. It was Sam who had opened her eyes to the realities of City life, where using others to advantage was the game everyone played. Nan had looked down on actresses whose ambition was to become mistress of a wealthy courtier, perhaps even of the King himself, yet here she was, relying on Sophia - an avid playgoer who also happened to be related to Killigrew - to advance her career. Nan tried to take comfort from the fact that it had been Sophia who courted her, not vice versa, and Sophia who had first suggested dropping the occasional word in her actor-manager cousin's ear. But sometimes she wondered if she was fooling herself and had become as debased as everyone else.

An image of Phebe Bonnick standing at the mouth of the playhouse passage in her practical wool cloak and mud-spattered skirts surfaced, and she couldn't help contrasting her with Sophia. The long walk from Walbrook had not daunted the fair-haired young woman and had given her cheeks a becoming colour. Slim and pretty, Phebe only came up to Nan 's shoulder, and she seemed to prefer Castile soap to the more cloying scents Sophia used. It had been pleasant to be the object of the gratitude in those green eyes - an unlooked-for reward for a moment of madness. For suppose the stealer of the satchel had pulled a knife on Nan , and all she had to hand was a prop sword! In fact, she had found Phebe's attention so gratifying she had wanted to prolong the moment and, on impulse, invited her to see a play. We love those who bring out the good in us. Nan quirked her lips in self-mockery.

The rustle of pages turning on the music stand ceased, and Nan realised Sophia had chosen a song. Would she require Nan to sing it? An actress known for breeches roles was an exotic trophy to be displayed like old Crowly, the once magnificent lion that now paced tamely round the King's menagerie while onlookers gawped. Not that Nan minded display - she was an actress after all - but it could become wearisome. As could Sophia's other demands. But Sophia shook her head at Nan 's enquiry and beckoned another of her guests to the virginals.

Relieved to be dismissed, Nan wandered over to one of the card tables Sophia had placed around her drawing room for those who preferred to play while they listened to the music.

"May I join you?" Receiving nods from its occupants, who introduced themselves as Mr and Mrs Hull, she made herself comfortable. "I am not so flush in the pocket that I can afford high stakes, however," she warned.

"Fear not, Mrs Shelton." Hull discarded the deuces and treys and shuffled the remaining cards. "We shall play farthing Gleek."

Even so, the sums involved could soon mount up, if she wasn't careful. She felt in her pocket for some farthings and placed them on the table. Then, tuning out the off-key singing, she focussed on her cards.

"I'll vie the ruff," said Hull .

His wife shook her head. "Pass."

Nan studied her cards: low values. "I must pass too."

"Ha!" With a grin, he claimed the pot, and Nan resigned herself to returning home penniless.

While they played, she studied Sophia's latest acquisition: a set of colourful, wool-and-silk tapestry panels depicting the months of the year, lit to advantage by an extravagance of candles. In various scenes, medieval servants tilled the land while elegant ladies and gentlemen strolled in walled gardens or ambled along riverbanks. Nothing changes. She turned her attention to the gossip wafting over from the other tables, which kept returning to the worsening relations with the Dutch and the jockeying for power between the King's mistresses.

"Ah, la Belle Stuart," said Hull , noticing her interest. "Surely she must succumb to the King's advances soon."

Nan had caught a glimpse of the sixteen-year-old maid of honour a few weeks ago and thought her mind sharper than she was given credit for. "It is well known that the King desires that which is denied him."

"And yet, Lady Castlemaine..." said Hull , his expression knowing.

"Is a force of nature before which even the King must bend," acknowledged Nan . "For now, at least." One day Lady Castlemaine would go too far.

"A very beautiful force of nature," he murmured.

"I've heard that her husband is due back from his Venetian expedition any day," said Mrs Hull.

"Poor Mr Palmer. He will return to find her living in royal apartments, and his family grown larger by a boy and a girl - neither of them his." Hull gathered up the cards. "Time to declare."

He had a mournival and his wife a gleek. With a sigh, Nan transferred more farthings from her pile to theirs. The game moved on to its trick-playing stage, but Nan 's luck remained unchanged. She had just parted with the last of her farthings when a hand squeezed her shoulder. Startled, she turned her head.

"How goes the game?" asked Sophia, smiling down at her.

Nan realised that the singing part of the evening was over. "Your friends have left me penniless." She adopted a hopeful expression. "Have you come to rescue me?"

Before Sophia could reply, the drawing room opened and Mr Hamilton entered. An apologetic servant was at his heels, gesturing at the sword he still wore, and he handed it over and waved the servant away. Shock flashed across Sophia's face, followed by displeasure then resignation. Throwing Nan a look of apology, she went to greet her husband.

"William. I was not expecting you to be here tonight."

"Nor I," said Hamilton , disgruntled, and Nan guessed that the mistress he had planed to spend his evening with was indisposed. "The usual crowd of hangers-on, is it?"

His disdainful gaze swept over his wife's houseguests, lingered a moment on Nan , and moved on. Though Sophia's female dalliances - Nan was not the first - were no threat to his marriage, he had made no secret of his dislike for her. She had expected supper with Sophia, followed by an energetic night in her bedchamber. That was out of the question now.

Taking a breath and letting it out, she relaxed her shoulders and stood up. From the knowing glances coming her way, most of those present knew, or at least could guess, why she was leaving, and some might even be relishing the scandal. But she could survive a little public humiliation. After all, she was an actress. And Sophia would make it up to her later.

"Forgive me, Mrs Hamilton. Mr Hamilton." Nan projected her voice so it carried to everyone in the drawing room. "I've just remembered... I have another appointment and must take my leave of you." Sophia returned her curtsey, but her husband was like stone. No matter. "It's been a delightful evening, as always. Thank you." With head held high, she made her exit.

***

Thursday, 6th October 1664

The Bonnicks' cookmaid moved aside a candlestick and placed the dish of oysters on the table.

"Thank you, Hannah." Phebe threw her a smile. She had held back supper for an hour, until father returned from an unscheduled visit to a sick patient, but the oysters, slices of neats' tongue, and tarts were served cold, so nothing had spoiled. Her stomach wasn't pleased with the delay, though, and its loud rumble made Hannah's lips twitch with amusement and Phebe sigh.

"Yes. Thank you," said her father, who had discarded his wig and donned his comfortable velvet cap. It was probably just the candlelight showing up his pockmarks - he had survived the smallpox as a boy - and deepening the shadows beneath his eyes, but he looked tired. She hoped he wouldn't have to go out again tonight. "It looks delicious."

Hannah smoothed down her apron. "Thank you, Sir."

Her tone was complacent, but with justification. They had 'inherited' the red-haired cookmaid four years ago from her father's old friend Mr Turner on his death. After a string of green girls, the arrival of a seasoned cookmaid, who packed a carthorse's strength into a milkmaid's body, had come as a huge relief, for Father could not be expected to deal with day-to-matters, and rectifying the previous cookmaids' often costly mistakes had fallen on Phebe's shoulders.

Hannah bobbed a curtsey and returned downstairs to eat her own supper in the kitchen. It had once been the cellar, but with the aid of a few alterations now did double duty. As did this room, reflected Phebe, catching a not unpleasant whiff of turpentine, liquorice, and lavender from the drying racks and jar-laden shelves. But only the wealthiest traders - Juxon the sugar-baker, who lived further along Walbrook, for example - could afford spacious premises within the City walls. At least the Bonnicks had a back yard in which to hang out washing on fine days.

Her father said Grace, helped himself to several oysters, and picked up his knife. "While I remember," he said, "tomorrow I am out for supper. There's a court meeting at Cobham House, to discuss admission of new members." After many years as a liveryman guardant , father had been elected court assistant to the Society of Apothecaries, and he took his duties seriously.

"I'll make sure Hannah knows." She took a breath. "Talking of going out, father, I was wondering...."

"Yes?" He swallowed an oyster and reached for the next.

"If I might have an afternoon off next week."

His knife paused and he raised his head, frowning. "You know how busy we are."

" I'll make up the hours. I've been invited to a play at the King's Playhouse. And I'd like to go."

A week had eroded Phebe's determination to decline Nan Shelton's invitation. For some reason, she had been unable to banish that encounter from her thoughts. Perhaps it was the actress's breezy confidence, or the stark contrast she provided with anyone of Phebe's acquaintance. How tall she was, and how outrageous yet striking in her male attire.

"A play?" Her father's eyebrows shot up. "Who has invited you? An old school friend?"

She had lost touch with her friends from petty school when they first moved to Walbrook, as well he knew. And what little socialising she did was restricted to relatives and neighbours. "An actress I met while delivering prescriptions in Covent Garden ." She left out the fact a thief had almost stolen her satchel - Father was overprotective enough of her as it was. "Mrs Shelton."

"That name rings a faint bell." He sat back frowning. "I'm not sure I like the idea of your keeping company with an actress, Phebe. They have a reputation-"

"Hardly 'keeping company'."

"Hm." He studied her. "You must take after your mother. She liked a play. I never saw their purpose, but she enjoyed attending so much I did not forbid it." His mood became melancholy. "There was a playhouse hard by our house in Southwark when we were first married, and she stole away sometimes to attend. The Puritans closed it down, and then you were born, and...." Bristles rasped as he rubbed his jaw. "Are you happy, Phebe?" Before she could answer, he continued, " I had thought you would be married by now, with your own house and children. But since that young man stopped calling... what was his name?"

"Philip Hubland." She sighed. The son of the leather-seller two doors down had been a year older than Phebe. He was far too full of himself and his clammy hands had a distressing tendency to wander. She'd tried to like him, but the thought of spending her life with him appalled her, and in the end, she'd wished him better fortune elsewhere. He'd found himself a new girl - to her amazement it didn't take long - and taken to parading her past the shop window as if to say: See what you're missing. They were married now and lived in Colchester . Rather her than me.

"There has been no one since him, has there? My fault, I fear. I should never have agreed to make you my apprentice."

Phebe stared at her father. "But helping you has always been my greatest wish." In fact one of her earliest memories was of clinging to his leg and gazing up in fascination while he weighed out ingredients into the pan scales.

"Nevertheless. What your mother would say, I dread to think. I see now that there is little in your life besides me and the shop."

"That's not true! I meet new people every day."

He sighed. "I meant friends and suitors rather than customers."

She rolled her eyes. "Surely there is plenty of time for that. After all I have just turned twenty."

He grunted, noticed an oyster juice stain on his shirt - Hannah would not be pleased - and dabbed it with his napkin.

"Besides, I might meet someone at the playhouse," said Phebe, redirecting the conversation to its original purpose.

"I hope not." He looked up. "Such places are rife with libertines." But he seemed amused rather than disapproving, and she took that as encouragement.

"Would a particular afternoon be more convenient? I will bow to your preferences. And as I said, I will make up the time lost."

"Well. If you are determined to attend." He pursed his lips. "Tuesday might be best."

"Then Tuesday it shall be." She beamed at him. "Oh thank you, Father. I promise you won't regret it."

With a wry smile, he reached for the plate of cold meat. "I already am."

***

Tuesday, 11th October 1664

The smell of candle wax wafted towards Nan as she bowed in her most masculine manner and followed it with a curtsey. As she had hoped, it earned her a cheer and renewed applause. A wilting flower landed at her feet, followed by a handful of coins, and, with a smile, she gathered up the offerings, then let Anne and Beck Marshall take her place on the semicircular forestage, and joined the rest of the cast waiting beneath the proscenium arch.

"Breeches suit you," observed Nell Gwyn. "I wonder how I would look in them."

Nan studied the flame-haired actress's legs. "You have the ankles for it. But I expect Hart's already told you as much." It was common knowledge the pair had become lovers. They made an amusing if rather odd contrast - Hart's large frame dwarfed Nell's, and he was nearly forty to the pretty former orange-girl's sixteen.

With a grin, Nell returned her gaze to the Marshall sisters, who were basking in the wild applause. Nan thought it well deserved, for she had found today's performance of The Parson's Wedding an uphill battle. Sir Charles Sedley and his drunken friends had arrived late, elbowed their way to a front bench of the Pit, and from there provided a loud running commentary. Though amused to start with, their fellow playgoers had soon become restless, and at one point Nan feared a riot might break out.

It didn't help her concentration, she acknowledged wryly, that Phebe Bonnick was sitting in the fifth row. Delighted that the young woman had accepted her invitation, she had set out to impress her, only for it to dawn on her, after the first act was barely under way, just how coarse the play was. I'm an idiot. An apothecary's daughter will be expecting something far more refined.

She would apologise when Phebe came backstage - Nan had left an invitation with the admittance man, along with the complimentary ticket. If Phebe forgave her, they might spend a pleasant evening getting to know one another at the Rose Tavern just around the corner.

"I saw your patroness sitting in the middle gallery," said Nell.

"Who? Sophia?" Nan 's stomach dropped like a stone. "I thought she had gone to the country. Her son has a birthday, and Sophia's parents wished to see him."

"She must have returned early." Nell gave her an amused look. "As you would have noticed, had not your attention been elsewhere."

The stage curtain fell, its thick red folds muffling the still ringing applause, and the Marshall sisters came to join them.

"A plague on Little Sid," said Beck, using the nickname Sedley's slight stature had earned him. "He's not as witty as he thinks."

"Pray God he is not in tomorrow," added her sister Anne.

Murmuring agreement, Nan and the others followed the sisters backstage and up the raked floor, stepping over the grooves, trapdoors, and ropes lying in wait for the unwary, and weaving their way between stagehands bent on assorted errands.

Two sceneshifters were talking to a frowning Killigrew and gesturing at one of the shutters. The wide, painted panel - one of a pair that depicted the rear of Lady Love-All's house - had jammed halfway, delaying the start of Act 2.

"It had better not happen again," she heard the actor-manager growl as they passed, "or I'll dock you each a shilling."

Just as well the King was not in tonight .

They took the stairs up to the tiring-rooms, but as on previous afternoons there were too many women to fit in their usual room - the smaller of the two - so Nan , Nell, and Beck made their way into the men's room. A coal fire burning in the grate had taken the chill off, but its sulphurous stink couldn't quite mask the stale male sweat and old tobacco. Nose wrinkling, Beck disappeared behind the screen in the corner and called the tiring woman over to help her undress - it paid to be quick if you wanted no lascivious witnesses. Nan and Nell took their seats on stools at the scuffed table, on which looking glasses, ewers, bowls, and face cloths had been set ready.

Nan unfastened her sword - the props man had worked his magic, but in a certain light you could still see a slight dent - and with relief took off Mr Jolly's wig. She gave her scalp a satisfying scratch, filled a basin with water, dunked a cloth, and, using her reflection as her guide, wiped off her moustache.

From outside came male voices, getting closer.

"Here comes the mob," said Nell, sounding apprehensive. "Beware, Beck. Are you decent?"

"Almost," came Beck's voice from behind the screen. "Pray God Little Sid is not with them."

God must have heard her prayer, for it was their fellow players, Ned Kynaston and Charles Hart, who entered and congratulated them on their performances.

Hart drew up a chair beside Nell and began a whispered conversation accompanied by fond glances. Kynaston, meanwhile, propped himself against the table next to Nan and struck up a mock complaint about the unfairness of women playing men's roles. Nan laughed, as he had presumably intended, for she remembered the first time she had seen Kynaston onstage, clad in all his feminine glory. She would never have guessed then that he had been born and raised in Shropshire as she had, or that he had been apprenticed as a draper.

Clad in a gown at last, Beck emerged from behind the screen and let the tiring woman pin up her hair. From her frown she felt neglected, but the next arrival remedied that. A handsome young man in well-tailored clothes, he introduced himself as Mark Trevor and lost no time in plying her with compliments and gifts, which she accepted with complacency and dancing eyes.

Nan set aside the now dirty face cloth and was contemplating changing into her own clothes when movement in the doorway caught her attention. She hoped it was Phebe, come to take her up on her invitation, but it was Sophia, wearing yet another new gown - ivory, this time - and three face patches, none of them thankfully as grotesque as the coach-and-horses Castlemaine was reported to have worn.

"Sophia." The surprise in Nan 's voice was genuine, the pleasure wasn't.

"You were wonderful as always, my dear," said Sophia. "I was just telling my cousin so." She made her way over to Nan 's stool, ignored Kynaston, and said, "You'll dine with me tonight, of course." He raised his eyebrows at Nan and the watching tiring woman, then with an ostentatious yawn announced his intention to visit the other tiring room and departed.

"My husband has business elsewhere," Sophia went on. "Or so he professes." Her sultry look showed that more than dining was on the menu.

"That is kind of you," said Nan , searching in vain for an excuse.

"Pardon me, but is this the tiring room?" The familiar voice made Nan turn her head. Phebe Bonnick stood in the open doorway, wearing the same outfit she had worn at their last meeting, but this time her shoes and skirts bore no traces of mud, and her cloak was draped over one arm. Their gazes met and Phebe smiled. "Ah, I see it is."

"Mrs Bonnick." Nan kicked back the stool and stood up. "I hope the play was not too coarse."

"I have not been much to the theatre of late." Phebe came towards her. "But- "

With a face like thunder, Sophia drew herself up to her full height, which was only a couple of inches taller than Phebe. "Pray have the good manners not to interrupt," she spat. "Is it not obvious to you, whoever you are, that Mrs Shelton is already engaged in conversation?"

Phebe came to a startled halt, and even Hart and Nell broke off their whispering to take an interest in proceedings. "I beg your pardon." Her face flushed.

The rudeness of Sophia's attack had taken Nan 's breath away, and for once she was too angry to hide it. "If you must upbraid someone, Sophia, let it be me. I invited Mrs Bonnick to see the play and give me her opinion of it."

For a moment Sophia's face went blank, then calculation entered her eyes. She opened her mouth, but before she could utter what Nan was certain would be an insincere apology, Phebe pre-empted her.

"I did not mean to offend anyone," she said with quiet dignity. "I came to tell Mrs Shelton that I enjoyed the play and to thank her for her generosity. Now, please, will you excuse me? It's getting dark and I've deprived my father of my help for long enough."

"Wait," said Nan in dismay. "Mrs Bonnick, please-" But her words fell on empty space, for the apothecary's daughter had already curtseyed and fled the scene.

***

Wednesday, 19th October 1664

Phebe regarded the kitchen table with astonishment. On its scrubbed surface lay two plump pigeons, a loaf of bread still warm from the bake oven, a wedge of hard cheese, a dozen eggs, carrots, onions, turnips, potatoes, two bunches of parsley, and a basket filled with apples and bramble berries. "How on earth do you always manage to buy so much for so little, Hannah?"

The cookmaid's freckled cheeks dimpled. "Getting to market just after they've rung the bell is the trick. After that, you just have to know how to bargain."

"I wish I-"

"Make haste, Phebe," came her father's voice. "There are customers waiting."

Phebe tucked a wisp of hair back under her cap. "I had better go. Don't forget to put out the ashes and waste for the Raker. Last week we almost missed him."

"I'll do it as soon as I've put this away." Hannah indicated the table.

"Thank you." Phebe hurried up the steep cellar stairs.

Father looked up as she went through into the shop. He was making up prescriptions, and he jerked his head towards the bench by the window, where three customers sat waiting. Mrs Compton was a regular, and Phebe exchanged a smile with her, but the others were strangers. Of the three, only the young woman averting her gaze from the large jar of leeches had dry clothes - the sedan chair visible through the window must have sheltered her from the rain.

Phebe smoothed down her apron. "Who's first?"

With a grunt of effort, Mrs Compton got up. She lived just around the corner in Bucklersbury, which boasted several apothecary shops, but always preferred coming here. That extra honey, Phebe supposed - Mrs Compton loved sweetmeats, as her expanding waistline showed.

"Toothpowder and some more of the usual, my dear." By 'usual' she meant suppositories, and Phebe nodded her understanding. "And have you some more of those fennel seeds for my husband's breath?"

With a smile, Phebe found them for her, and sent her away well satisfied.

The young woman with the sedan chair proved to be a good deal older when seen close to. She was in search of cosmetics, which they kept in the drawers beneath the counter. Father grunted his annoyance but moved so she could retrieve ceruse, Spanish paper, and belladonna. She measured out and wrapped the required quantities, then added a large phial of orange-flower water to the pile. The cost of the woman's parcels would have made most suck in their breath, but she paid without comment, tucked them under her arm, and hurried out. Moments later the chair rose and lurched off along Walbrook.

That left the bedraggled-looking boy, who from his clothes was a street sweeper. He pointed at his left eye, which was red and inflamed.

"Golden Eye ointment," said Phebe at once. "It's inexpensive," she added, seeing his anxiety.

Relieved, he nodded, and she fetched the jar of ointment, scooped out a dollop, smeared it onto some greaseproof brown paper, and folded it for him.

When the door had closed behind him, she turned to see if her father needed any help.

"More tutty, Phebe."

He pointed at the large pestle and mortar standing in the shop corner, and Phebe groaned. She spent a good portion of her time preparing the fine zinc powder used in ointments, but that was the apprentice's lot.

Her thoughts drifted as she pounded the coarse grains, and a memory surfaced, as it had often since her visit to the playhouse, of a breeches-clad Nan Shelton striding across the green cloth-covered stage. The Parson's Wedding had been far too coarse for Phebe's taste, and the rest of the all-female cast left her unmoved, but whenever Nan appeared, she'd found herself transfixed. It was a pity the visit to the tiring room afterwards had spoiled the occasion. Her lips thinned. I did not deserve such treatment.

The doorbell's jingle brought her back to her surroundings. Father was nowhere to be seen, so Phebe wiped her hands on her apron and served the customer. He departed clutching a bottle of Daffy's Elixir and humming under his breath. Outside, the rain resumed, streaking the dirty window, and Phebe let out a sigh, knowing that she would be out in it herself soon, delivering prescriptions.

Her father reappeared, resumed his position behind the counter and picked up the next prescription slip. He muttered something about bad handwriting. Dr Hodges was the worst offender; his medical practice was just down the road in Red Lion Yard. And as if on cue, the doorbell's jingle announced the arrival of the doctor himself.

From his expression and the vigour with which he was tapping his gold-headed cane, something had displeased Hodges, but though his hat and coat were soaked, it was unlikely to be the weather. Pinning her father with an icy glare, he marched over to the counter.

"I have just come from a patient, Mr Bonnick. Mrs Fowler is not resting comfortably. Not comfortably at all. So I examined her medicine, and what do I find? One grain of opium, though I prescribed two ." His cane struck the counter with a thwack that made Phebe jump. "Incompetence or carelessness, either is as bad. I have a good mind to take my business elsewhere. What say you to that, sir? Eh? Eh?"

The physician's acerbic views on the merits or otherwise of apothecaries were well known, but they were usually of a general nature. This was a personal attack on her father, and his face paled. "Fetch me the ledger and last week's prescription slips, Phebe," he said quietly.

"Yes, Father." It took her only a moment to retrieve the heavy book and tin box from the other room.

Lips pinched to whiteness, he found the entry in his ledger then riffled through the contents of the box. When he had found the prescription slip he sought, he scanned it twice and thrust it at her. "What does that say?"

Hodges' handwriting looked so like a spider's scrawl, Phebe thought it a wonder anyone could discern any ingredients at all. As for the quantities, the digit next to the grains of opium might have been anything. She said as much.

Her verdict made the doctor flush. "If you could not decipher it," he muttered, "you should have asked for clarification."

"That particular remedy usually contains a single grain," said her father, putting the slip back in the box and closing the lid.

"Usually." Hodges tapped his cane on the floor again, but with less vigour. "Indeed. But Mrs Fowler is in such discomfort...." He fell silent, before adding a grudging, "You weren't to know."

Father didn't reply.

Phebe glanced at him and then at Hodges. "Are you still of a mind to take your business elsewhere?" she asked, her tone innocent.

The doctor gave her a shrewd look and rubbed his jaw. "Perhaps I spoke in haste. Hm. Henceforth I shall write out prescriptions in a fairer hand." She wondered how long that resolution would last. "But in future, Mr Bonnick -" the two men locked gazes, "- will you undertake to make certain you understand my directions or send enquiry?"

"Agreed." Honour satisfied and crisis averted, her father became all business once more. "I shall make up another dose this instant, with additional opium, and deliver it to Mrs Fowler in person. No charge." He cocked his head. "Will that suit you?"

"Indeed it will." With a satisfied nod, Hodges made his way to the door.

As the physician exited the shop, his cane tapping, their neighbour Rob Norton came in, shaking the rain from his hat. Phebe smiled a welcome. "May I help you?"

"Thank you. I fear Father is feeling much worse." He gave her a sad smile. "That poppy syrup no longer seems to give him relief."

"I'm sorry to hear it." The growth in old Godfrey's bowel was incurable, so Father said. She cast around for a stronger palliative and looked a query at her father. "An anodyne cluster, perhaps?" Only he could administer the syringe for the purpose.

He nodded. "I'll deal with it in a moment. Will you finish that batch of tutty, Phebe?"

"Of course." Stifling a sigh, she picked up the pestle and resumed her pounding. Whatever Nan Shelton was up to this morning, she thought wistfully, it was unlikely to be this dull.

***

Monday, 24th October 1664

"I do love a good death scene," Beck Marshall told Nan , as the two of them walked along Playhouse Passage.

"So I noticed." Nan kicked a shrivelling curl of discarded orange peel to the side of the unswept alley. "But take care Burt does not complain you are stealing his thunder."

"Pox take him." Beck tossed her head, setting dark ringlets bouncing. "Isn't it enough he has the lead? The audience will lap it up, and Killigrew knows that as well as I."

She had a point. With its treachery and murder, The Cardinal always pulled in the crowds, and in Beck's talented hands the scene in which Duchess Rosaura was poisoned would wring tears from even the hardest of hearts.

The company had spent all morning rehearsing. As Nan had a minor role and knew her lines by heart, she had twiddled her thumbs much of the time. Substantial roles for women were few, and with the recent influx of actresses to the Company, competition was becoming fiercer. If it weren't for Sophia's help, Nan 's roles might be even smaller.

Nan sighed. Since the unpleasantness in the tiring room, any feelings she might once have had for her patroness had cooled. She felt a flicker of self-disgust. If I were less concerned about Killigrew, I'd have ended things between us. But it was one thing to know Sophia had a dark side, another to see it in action. And I'm not ready to relinquish the ace in my hand just yet.

Sophia hadn't noticed Nan 's discomfort, or was pretending she hadn't. She was acting as if her jealous outburst had never happened, but then she had always been expert at ignoring anything... inconvenient. Her treatment of Phebe continued to rankle, however, and the young woman's retreat weighed on Nan 's conscience.

The sunlit bustle and spaciousness of Drury Lane made a striking contrast after the confinement of the alley, and Beck bade her farewell and departed in the opposite direction. But when Nan drew level with the Cock and Pie tavern, above which she and Nell both had lodgings, she gave into an impulse to keep going. She owed Phebe an apology. A letter might go astray - all she knew was Phebe's surname and that her father was an apothecary, and Phebe's mention of Walbrook didn't mean she resided there. No, the young woman with the enchanting face and green eyes deserved an apology, and Nan meant to deliver it in person. Or attempt to.

The section of Drury Lane known to locals as Maypole Lane disgorged her into the Strand close by the maypole, a notable landmark since the King's return. A hackney carriage was waiting at the stand opposite, but it was dry underfoot, so she opted to keep her shilling and walk the two miles instead. She strode along Fleet Street and up Ludgate Hill, then through Ludgate's massive arch, glancing up at the niche where Good Queen Bess's statue stood, orb and sceptre in hands, regal gaze trained on distant Whitehall . Keeping a wary eye out for thieves, pedestrians, horses, and the endless rumbling stream of carts and carriages, she worked on her apology, but each attempt seemed more inarticulate than the last.

Watling Street gave way to Budge Row, which in turn gave way to Canwicke Street , then Nan turned right into Walbrook. Cramped timber-framed houses nestled cheek by jowl against the newer, grander stone residences. None of the shop fronts she peered in belonged to an apothecary, though, and she was beginning to doubt herself when, half way along on the other side of the road, a signboard caught her eye: that of a Turk's Head, tongue extended, and resting upon it a gilded pill. She waited for a carriage to pass, its steel-shod wheels striking sparks from the cobblestones, then stepped over a fresh heap of horse droppings and hurried across.

'George Bonnick. Apothecary', read the legend on the shop window and with a feeling of triumph, she peered through the glass. A knot of customers made it hard to see the figure standing behind the counter in the gloomy interior. Phebe, her father, or someone else? Only one way to find out. She pushed open the door, the bell above it jingling in response, and made her way inside.

Five heads turned to survey Nan as she entered, one of them familiar. It was Phebe standing behind the counter, and she was in the middle of serving a married couple and their two young children. The blue apron she wore made Nan 's eyebrows rise. Not just an errand girl for her father, then, but apprenticed? It was unusual for women to become apothecaries, though not unheard of.

Phebe stared at her, mouth open, then indicated the worn bench by the window. "Please take a seat. I'll be with you in a moment," she said, her manner distant.

Nan sat as directed, waiting while Phebe recommended what seemed like an endless stream of remedies for the family's various complaints. Time crawled past, and she occupied herself trying to identify the various aromas, some pleasant, some not, and peering at a jar of wriggling leeches; a cone of sugar; countless galley pots and majolica jars, their labels all in Latin; and the massive pestle and mortar standing in one corner of the shop. The father let his wife do most of the talking, staring at Nan as if trying to recall where she'd seen her before. He murmured something to his wife, who gave Nan a curious look, then shrugged and turned back to accept the last of the string-tied parcels from Phebe and pay the bill.

When they had departed at last, pulling the door closed behind them, Phebe came out from behind the counter. "My father is visiting a patient." She wiped her hands on her apron. "I can send for him if you are unwell, Mrs Shelton."

Nan got to her feet. "Thank you, but I have no need of an apothecary's services. I came to see you. To apologise... for the other afternoon." Her carefully rehearsed words deserted her and she paused, cheeks warming. "Mrs Hamilton takes a... a proprietorial interest in me, I'm afraid. That does not excuse her incivility, of course, but... I had no idea she would be there that day. Let alone that she would choose to be so rude to you." She took a breath and started again. "Please accept my sincerest apology, Mrs Bonnick. Putting you in such an awkward position and causing offence was the last thing I wished for."

Phebe inclined her head. "I see."

Nan could not interpret the inflection in her voice. "In that case I must thank you for listening and bid you good afternoon." Disappointed with Phebe's response - though what on earth had she expected? - she turned to leave.

"Wait."

Hope sparked in the pit of Nan 's stomach. "Yes?" She turned back.

"You cannot be held responsible for another's behaviour." Phebe played with the ribbon of her apron. "Why did you invite me to your play?" The directness of her gaze made Nan blink.

"I... An impulse, I suppose." A thought struck her. "Why did you accept?"

For the first time since Nan had entered the shop, Phebe smiled. "I've never met an actress before. Especially one who specialises in breeches roles. We are like chalk and cheese, and that intrigues me." She paused, as if in realisation. "This is the first time I've seen you in skirts, Mrs Shelton."

" Nan , please." It was Nan 's turn to smile. "Indeed, I believe it is. Am I forgiven?"

"I am inclined to give you a second chance."

The twitch of Phebe's lips undermined the gravity of her tone, and relief flooded through Nan . "Thank you."

Phebe nodded. "I didn't have the opportunity to tell you, but you were splendid as Mr Jolly. You captured that swagger some men possess." She pursed her lips. "The other actresses did not fare as well."

The width of most women's hips meant they could never hope to play men convincingly, thought Nan . But wasn't that half the attraction of breeches roles, especially to the males in the audience? "Being tall works to my advantage. Which is not often the case."

The doorbell jingled and a woman with a squalling baby in her arms entered. With a murmur of apology, Phebe retreated once more behind the counter. "May I help you?"

The worried mother was at her wit's end, but Phebe soothed her, diagnosed wind, and suggested a julep, which she accepted with alacrity. Her calm certainty impressed Nan , and when the woman had left, she complimented her on her manner.

"Does blue mean you are apprenticed?" She indicated the apron.

Phebe nodded. "To my father. In four years, providing I pass the oral examination, I shall be a journeyman apothecary."

The shop door opened again, this time to admit an elderly gentleman seeking assistance for his gout. With a murmur of apology, Phebe turned her attention to him, and it was five minutes before they could resume their conversation.

Nan tried to curb her impatience at these constant interruptions. It was her own fault for approaching Phebe at her place of work. "Perhaps we could talk in other surroundings," she said. "An excursion, perhaps. It's Lord Mayor's Day on Saturday, and I know a good spot in Cheapside from which to view the pageant." She tried to gauge Phebe's expression. "But perhaps that is too short notice. What are your plans for Gunpowder Plot Day?"

Before Phebe could answer, a man in his forties entered. His clothes were brown and of a sober cut that was almost Puritan, but perhaps he just liked the plain and practical. As he set down his heavy case beside the counter and exchanged a fond smile with Phebe, Nan realised it must be her father, returned from visiting his patient.

"Are you waiting to be served?" he asked Nan , and when he learned she was not in fact a customer, his brow creased in disapproval.

"You had better go," whispered Phebe.

Nan nodded. She was unwilling to leave with no definite prospect of seeing Phebe again, however, so she paused in the doorway. "About Gunpowder Plot Day-"

"I will write to you," said Phebe. "Care of the playhouse."

***

Friday, 4th November 1664

"Phebe," came Father's voice from the dining room. "Supper has been ready for a quarter of an hour. Are you coming?"

With a start, she came back to herself. The candle on the counter was now a short stub and, outside, night had fallen. How long had she been staring at the sausage of paste instead of shaping portions of it into pills with her palms?

"Phebe?" he called again, impatient. "Can you hear me?"

With an effort she pulled herself together, but her head was throbbing, making it hard to think. "Sorry, Father. I'm coming."

But before she could make a move, he had come in search of her himself. Joining her at the shop counter, he peered at her. "Are you well?" He felt her forehead with the back of his hand. "You have a fever."

She realised she was sweating. Odd; she had felt shivery earlier. But then, this November was turning out to be a cold one. "I've been feeling a out of sorts all day," she told him.

"And your complexion is flushed. Hm." He led her by the hand into the other room and sat her at the dining table. Hannah had set two places for Supper - it was to be herring pie, she remembered - but Phebe had no appetite.

"Do you have any other symptoms?"

"My head hurts, and I have an ache here." Phebe indicated the lower right quadrant of her belly. "I took hemp seed for it."

He nodded approval. "For wind. But the discomfort has not eased?"

She shook her head.

"A dull ache or a sharp one?"

"Dull."

"Any flux?"

"No."

He left her side. "Hannah," she heard him call down to the kitchen. "Will you make up the fire in Phebe's bedchamber?"

"Yes, sir," came the cookmaid's reply.

Was he sending her to bed? She should protest, but the notion was inviting. Her eyelids felt heavy, so she closed them and listened to the sounds of Hannah climbing the stairs and of her father moving about. Lids were removed from jars and ingredients shaken out, then came the pounding of pestle in mortar and slosh of liquid. An aromatic scent wafted to her nostrils and she sensed him standing next to her. She opened her eyes.

"Drink this." He held out a cup full of dark liquid. "It's a decoction of ground ivy."

He had added honey to make the potion palatable, but it could not mask the bitter aftertaste. With a shudder she swallowed it down.

"Good." He took the empty cup from her. "Now. To bed with you. The fire in your room will help drive out the fever."

Tomorrow was Gunpowder Plot Day, she remembered. She had arranged to go with Nan to watch the fireworks. But a feeling of lassitude was sweeping over her - there must have been some poppy syrup in the cup too - and she knew she would not be well enough to go. "Mrs Shelton," she began.

"Not now, child." Father seldom called her that. "To your chamber, at once."

When she stood up, the room swam, and putting one foot in front of the other took all her strength. With a muttered exclamation, he helped her to the foot of the stairs. Hannah took over, draping one of Phebe's arms over her broad shoulders and started up.

"Wait." Phebe twisted in the cookmaid's grip. "Father, will you tell Mrs Shelton that I cannot keep our appointment?" His reluctance was obvious. "Oh, please. Promise me that you will write to her."

He gave an exaggerated sigh. "Very well. Now, enough of that. You must rest and recover your strength. Soon you will feel better."

She wished she felt as certain. She had a nagging feeling that a fever and a dull ache in that part of her belly could be signs of something more serious than colic. But she was finding it hard to keep her eyes open, let alone think, and Hannah was urging her upstairs.

A fire burned in her bedchamber grate, and Hannah had lit the candles on the candlestands. Phebe needed help to unpin her topknot, undress, and pull on her nightclothes, but she managed to ease herself into bed. The warming pan had had little time to do its work, so the sheet were still pleasantly cool against her wrists and ankles, but after a few minutes, she found her nightcap becoming too hot and restrictive and discarded it.

Hannah began to draw closed the bed curtains, but Phebe begged her not to - the last thing she needed was their warmth. With a frown, the cookmaid obeyed.

"Shall I blow out the candles, Madam?"

"Please."

A moment later, the glow of the coals in the grate had replaced the candlelight. "Call me if you need me," said the cookmaid.

"Thank you. I shall."

The door latch clicked closed, and Hannah's footsteps retreated downstairs.

Time passed, and Phebe lost all awareness of her surroundings. Once, she thought she heard Hannah's voice, but the words made no sense, and in any case that world no longer seemed relevant.

When next she surfaced, it was to light so bright it hurt her eyes and to find a familiar face looming over her. Dr Hodges was stroking his pointed chin, his brows creased in thought. His presence should concern her, she knew, but she couldn't seem to care. Sweat had plastered her hair to her scalp and drenched her shift, and Hodges' hand felt icy and heavy against her forehead. It was a relief when he withdrew it. He spoke to someone out of sight, but she could make no sense of his question or its answer, though she thought it was her father who replied.

Easing a hand beneath Phebe's neck, Hodges raised her head a few inches and held a cup to her lips. Its contents made her shudder, but she managed to swallow a bitter mouthful, then, at his urging, another, before flopping back against the pillow and letting the darkness claim her once more....

When she next opened her eyes, daylight was creeping under a gap in the curtains and the coals had burned down to embers in the grate. Her skin felt sensitive, every sense in her body heightened, and she wrinkled her nose at the unpleasant odour coming from her sheets. At least someone - presumably Hannah - had clothed her in a fresh shift while she slept.

Her head no longer throbbed and the pain in her belly had gone, much to her relief, but her throat felt like sand. A cup of something stood on one of the candlestands beside the bed, so she raised herself on one elbow and reached for it. Her hand was shaking so much half of its contents slopped over the side before it reached her lips, but it was worth the effort - never had tepid ale tasted so refreshing. She drained it dry, tried to replace it - the cup fell over and rolled off onto the mat - then flopped back against the pillow, exhausted.

The door creaked open and her father crept in. His gaze met hers, and he came to a startled halt. "Awake at last." Smiling broadly, he hurried towards her. "You gave us all a scare, Phebe."

"Did I?" Her voice was husky. "Was Mr Hodges here, or did I dream him?"

"He was here." He reached for her hand and clasped it.

She smiled to see his pleasure and relief. Judging by his brown silk dressing gown, he had not been up for long. "How long have I been ill?"

Father thought for a moment. "Three days and a night."

"So long!"

"Aye." He cocked his head. "How do you feel?"

"Weary. But the ache in my head has gone. And in my belly." Phebe tried in vain to remember. "What happened?"

"At one point, we feared a corruption of your appendix, but our fears proved groundless, thank God."

Her stomach lurched, and she was glad he had not told her earlier - such an affliction could have led to her death.

"Perhaps it was something you ate," he mused. "Whatever it was, by God's grace it has run its course."

"Something I ate?" Given the care and attention Hannah paid all food that came through her kitchen, she thought it unlikely. "But wouldn't I have had a flux?"

"In the usual run of things." He shrugged. "Likely we will never know exactly what ailed you, Phebe. That you have recovered your health is the main thing." He stroked her hair. "Now we must build up your strength. Have you an appetite?"

She hadn't, but she knew she must eat. "A little."

"Good." He smiled. "I'll ask Hannah to bring you a bowl of beef broth."

***

Saturday, 26th November 1664

Nan hopped to one side to avoid been crushed by a cartwheel and joined the throng of pedestrians queuing to pass through Ludgate arch. Once on its other side, she found the wind bitter and from the east, so she pulled down the brim of her hat, hunched her shoulders, and hoped Phebe had dressed sensibly.

She hadn't realised how much she had come to value their budding friendship until illness threatened to deprive her of it. The curt missive from Mr Bonnick had given few details, and Phebe's subsequent letters made light of it, but Nan knew she had been very ill. Now Phebe claimed to have recovered most of her strength and would not countenance postponing their excursion any longer. Nan hoped she wasn't being rash, but she had to admit she was looking forward to seeing her.

Gunpowder Plot Day's fireworks and bonfires were over for another year, so Nan had cudgelled her brains for something else that might suit. Fortunately, a full-page advert in The Intelligencer provided inspiration, and her suggestion that they view Hubert's Exhibition of Rarities piqued Phebe's curiosity. The hired room where the exhibition was being staged lay within easy walking distance of Walbrook and should not overtax Phebe's strength. What's more, once they had finished their viewing, they could retire to the Mitre tavern next door.

But to be on the safe side, I shall hire a chair to carry her home.

St Paul 's Cathedral loomed ahead, but before reaching it Nan turned left and headed for London House Yard. That swaying signboard of a Bishop's Mitre must be the tavern, she decided, and that door next to it the exhibition room's entrance. She spied a familiar figure approaching from the opposite direction, the wind snatching at her cloak, and her heart lifted as her eyes met Phebe's. Nan raised a gloved hand in greeting, which Phebe returned with a smile.

They met outside the door on which was tacked a printed notice: Exhibition of Rarities. "Are you well?" asked Nan at once. Exercise and the cold had brought a becoming blush to Phebe's cheeks, which were a little gaunter than she remembered but otherwise unmarked by her illness.

"Too easily tired, but apart from that... And you?"

"A little weary." Nan shrugged. "We are playing 'The Rival Ladies'. In fact I have a performance this afternoon, but I need not get back until 2." She held open the door. "Shall we?" Phebe nodded, and Nan followed her inside, glad to get out of the wind.

An admittance man was sitting at a rickety table in the cramped vestibule. He was dozing, but at their approach he roused himself and gave them an owlish blink.

"Here for the Exhibition?" he asked, his gaze hopeful.

Nan nodded. While Phebe loosened her hood's ties and threw it back, Nan gave the chalked notice board propped against one wall a glance, and was relieved to see the admission fee was within her reach . "Two, please."

Her coins clinked as the man dropped them into his moneybox. "Catalogue?" He indicated the stack of printed pamphlets. "No extra charge."

"One will suffice. Thank you." She handed it to Phebe.

He came out from behind his desk, unlocked the double doors to the exhibition room, and flung them wide. A smell that reminded Nan of old books and moth-eaten hunting trophies wafted out, and Phebe wrinkled her nose.

"You have the room to yourselves," said the admittance man, as if conferring a great honour.

No other visitors? Nan hoped that wasn't a bad sign. She arched an eyebrow at Phebe, and with a nod Phebe led the way.

They had taken only a few steps when she almost ran into Phebe's back. "Why are you stop-? Oh!" Phebe had craned back her head and was staring at a twenty-foot serpent suspended from the ceiling. "Good heavens," murmured Nan . "I wouldn't want to meet that on a dark night."

"No indeed!" Phebe seemed unable to take her eyes off it. Until Nan complained she was getting a crick in her neck, then, with an exclamation of apology, and giving her own neck a rueful rub, Phebe turned her attention to the rest of the room.

It was no wonder it smelled musty. Creatures and objects of every description crowded the surfaces of the shelves, drawers, chests, and tables that filled the room leaving scant space to walk between them. The sheer quantity, nature, and variety of the 'rarities' on display was astonishing, but then, Nan remembered, Hubert had been accumulating them for thirty years.

Phebe looked at a loss. "Where should we start?"

Nan considered. "What interests you most? Serpents? Birds? Fishes? Crystals- "

" Crystals ."

For the next hour, they went from object to object, peering at the faded labels before seeking clarification from the catalogue. Nan soon lost interest in the exhibits and instead leaned against a cabinet, arms folded, watching Phebe. She found her thirst for knowledge and air of wonder refreshing.

"A giant's thighbone?" Phebe peered at a massive bone then consulted the catalogue. "Can that be true?"

The only giants Nan knew of were the huge Elizabethan figures kept in the Guildhall. "Gog and Magog still had their thighs the last time I saw them."

"Ha!" Phebe gave her an appreciative smile. "I wonder what creature it is really from." She moved on to the next specimen, which despite its drab appearance turned out to be a chameleon. "I thought their skins were supposed to change colour." She sounded disappointed. "To blend in with their surroundings."

"That one can't have been much good at it, or it would never have been caught."

Phebe's mock frown drew a chuckle from Nan , but the yawn that followed reminded her of Phebe's illness. Cursing herself for her lack of consideration, Nan unfolded her arms and straightened. "Have you had enough? Shall we take some refreshment at the tavern next door?"

Phebe didn't try to disguise her relief. "I'd like that."

Nan led the way.

The familiar aromas of coal smoke, mulled wine, and baked meats greeted them in the Mitre. It had only been a few paces to the tavern, but the wind had left their hair and cloaks in disarray, and while they attempted to restore order, Nan listened to the muffled fiddle-playing coming from a back room.

The landlord hurried over to greet them. A bluff fellow with a large stomach and a wig threatening to slide forward over his eyebrows, Nan recognised him as a Playhouse regular.

"Mr Paget? Is this your establishment?"

"It is indeed. Welcome, Mrs Shelton. You and your friend do me great honour." He beamed at Phebe, who still looked charmingly unkempt. "Windy out today, isn't it? You're much better out of it. Now." His manner became brisk. "A private room, I take it? This way, if you please."

He escorted them to a small room at the back, where comfortable chairs were set around a freshly banked fire. The music was louder here - the fiddle player had struck up a sea shanty, and several male voices had joined in.

"Our music room is upstairs," explained Paget. "Too loud?" Nan shook her head. "Make yourselves at home, and I'll send the potboy directly." With a last smile and a bow, he departed.

"Thank you, Mr Paget," she called after him, relieved he wasn't the type to linger where he wasn't wanted.

With a groan of relief, Phebe sank into a chair. "Who knew walking around a room could be so tiring?" She reached for a shoe then paused. "Do you mind if I remove my shoes? My feet are aching."

"Not at all." Nan was pleased she felt so at ease.

Phebe's feet proved to be as dainty as the rest of her, and Nan couldn't help contrasting them with her own, which would not have been out of place next to the giant's thighbone. She cast around for something to talk about. "Have you seen the comet yet? I looked for it last night on my way home but saw no sign."

Phebe shook her head. "They say it portends war or plague."

"Or tempest or famine," added Nan . "If only they could settle on a single disaster."

Phebe smiled. "The evidence a comet in the heavens can cause disaster here below is scanty at best."

"Aye. But ignorance does not stop people from speculating."

"Especially if they have almanacs or pamphlets to sell," agreed Phebe, with a grin.

"Ha!"

The arrival of the Mitre's potboy prevented further conversation, and Phebe tucked her feet under her dress.

"Mulled wine?" suggested Nan . Phebe nodded. "And do you have any hot food?" she asked the boy - each tavern made different arrangements.

"For tuppence extra, I can fetch some from the Leg," he said, with the seen-it-all air of someone much older. His gaze went from Nan to Phebe and back again, assessing. "The venison pasties are good today."

Nan 's mouth watered. "Would venison suit you?" she asked.

"Oh yes!"

Phebe's enthusiasm made her smile. "Two venison pasties it is."

***

Sunday, 4th December 1664

The black drapes covering the windows and mirrors made it feel more like night that mid afternoon, thought Phebe, as she followed the maid upstairs. The Nortons hadn't stinted on the candles, though, so she was able to indulge her curiosity. Seeing how others furnished their homes was always interesting. Especially when it's a next-door neighbour.

The Nortons sold high quality wares from a haberdashery shop at the Royal Exchange and had no need of a Walbrook shop front, but the upper storeys of their house followed the same layout as Phebe's. There the similarities ended. The old man's taste (at least she assumed it was his) had run to the fussy and the florid, whereas Phebe's father preferred the plain and simple; as did she - it required less dusting.

She saw the maid had turned to see what was keeping her, and, with a murmur of apology, quickened her pace. She was trying to commit everything of interest to memory. Not only because Father would be expecting a full account later, but also because it was her turn to write to Nan . And while this might be a sad occasion, it was also an opportunity to write about something other than the shop and its customers.

Nan had not remarked on the dullness of Phebe's letters, but she must surely think it. Her latest letter, received that morning, brimmed with anecdotes about her actor friends and included a sketch of the comet, which she had spied at last two nights ago. If Nan 's drawing was to believed, it resembled a fiery orb, its tail spreading like the birch twigs of a besom. Phebe longed to see it for herself.

A letter fell far short of telling Nan news in person, of course. Nan was entertaining company, and conversations with her often took unexpected, even irreverent turns. But they could not meet as often as Phebe would have liked. Actresses' lives were almost as busy as those of apothecaries, she had discovered. And if Nan wasn't learning the lines of her next play, she was rehearsing, or performing. Sometimes, in addition to afternoon performance at the playhouse, she would also be summoned to perform at court in the evening. Being a member of the King's Company has its disadvantages.

"In here, Madam."

They had reached the landing and the maid was pointing towards the rear bedchamber, whose door stood open, allowing out the murmur of voices.

"Thank you." Bracing herself, Phebe entered.

Mrs Norton was holding vigil on a chair beside her husband's casket, which rested on two stools rather than on the bed in which he'd died. Her son Rob stood next to her, his hand resting on her shoulder in a gesture of comfort, and he nodded a greeting.

"Mrs Bonnick," said the widow, as Phebe dropped her a curtsey. Her eyes were red with weeping and her features drawn, but she held herself straight-backed and composed. "Good of you to come." Her gaze flicked to the empty space behind Phebe, before returning to her face.

Phebe answered the unspoken question. "Father was called away at short notice to attend one of Dr Hodges' patients. He sends his apologies and regrets - I am come in his stead, if you'll permit me."

Mrs Godfrey gave her a wan smile. "He will be missed, but I cannot begrudge him rendering the same comfort and assistance to another that he rendered my husband." Her son murmured agreement.

Graciously put. "Thank you." Phebe stumbled through a few more expressions of sympathy, her cheeks warming, until Mrs Godfrey took pity on her and asked if she would like to pay her respects to the deceased.

Holding her breath, she peered inside the open casket, but she needn't have worried. Father had told her he'd managed to ease the old man's pain, and the peace and contentment on Godfrey Norton's face was evidence he had died a 'good' death. It was amazing to think he had been born before the Spanish Armada and managed to survive all the turbulent times that followed.

Rob Norton had been watching her. Now he glanced at his mother and received a nod. "Mrs Bonnick." He held out his hand. "Would you give this to your father?" In his hand was a gold and black-enamel mourning ring. Such things were usually reserved for close family and chief mourners only.

"Gladly." She curled her fingers around it. "He will be honoured."

He exchanged another glance with his mother and received another nod. "The women are gathering in the front room," he said. "Will you join them?"

"Thank you, I will." With a final curtsey, Phebe took her leave.

A dozen women were sitting or standing around the Nortons' front room, chatting while they took refreshment. Phebe recognised several of them and smiled a greeting. Mrs Hotchkiss, who lived three doors further up Walbrook, beckoned her over and patted the seat beside her. Smiling her thanks, Phebe accepted both her invitation and the plate of biscuits and cup of hot claret offered by another of the Nortons' maids.

"That's right," said Mrs Hotchkiss. "Fortify yourself for what's to come. It's bitter cold out and never much warmer inside St Stephen." A thought struck her. "Are you completely well?"

Phebe nodded. "Or Father would not have let me come." She sipped the hot wine and let it warm her.

"There's to be oysters and cake when we return," confided Mrs Hotchkiss. "And Mr Juxon has sent a wheel of cheese." Her gaze fell on Phebe's middle finger and her eyes widened. "A mourning ring!" She leaned towards it. "Is that a death's head?"

Phebe nodded. "There's an inscription inside it too." She set the plate of biscuits on her lap, removed the ring, and let her companion examine it.

"'Hope Helpeth Greife. In memory of GN. 1664.' Very touching."

Though badly spelled. "Indeed." Phebe slid the ring back on her finger.

A boom of laughter from the back room where the men were gathered made some of the women tut, but Phebe didn't mind. It was natural that talk must turn at times to lighter matters. As if to prove her point, Mrs Hotchkiss asked her if she had made plans for Christmas.

Phebe shook her head. "It's our busiest time of the year, so we cannot close the shop or leave London . And you? Will you be going to the country?"

"Samuel is coming to us with his family. You remember our son, don't you?" For the next five minutes, Mrs Hotchkiss held forth about him, his wife, and their two-year old boy - a topic almost as dear to her as food - and Phebe was free to eat and drink in peace.

A shadow darkened the doorway, and the cry went up, "They are bringing out the casket. Form up the procession for St Stephen." With a glance at Mrs Hotchkiss, Phebe got to her feet, and together they made ready to join the exodus.

***

Wednesday, 13th December 1664

A post boy was talking to the Playhouse doorkeeper as Nan trudged up the passage, the Winter-grey sky matching her mood. She had spent last night keeping Sophia and her friends amused and felt tired as a result. Strange how some people fill you with life while others seem to drain you of it. Phebe always sends me away with a spring in my step.

The post boy turned at her approach, guided by Dick's pointing finger. "Mrs Shelton?"

"Aye." She halted. "Have you something for me?" A letter f rom Phebe? Proposing we meet next Sunday, perhaps? Already the day seemed brighter.

He produced a letter from his postbag. "A shilling, if you please." Seeing Nan 's surprise, he pointed at the smudged letter office mark. " Antwerp , see?"

She knew only one person who lived there. Her husband . What on earth does Sam want? With ill grace she paid the delivery charge, and, while the post boy hurried away, steeled herself and broke the seal.

Perfunctory with his greetings and enquiries after her health as always, Sam got straight to the point. The flow of once plentiful commissions for Joseph's paintings was drying up and he was running low on funds. If Nan could send money he would be obliged. At once, otherwise he might be forced to return to London and take up residence with her once more.

Blackmail. She suppressed the urge to crumple the sheet of paper into a ball.

"Everything all right, Mrs Shelton?" asked Dick, his craggy face creased with concern.

"I've had better news." She forced a smile. "But at least no one has died."

She made her way into the auditorium, then down the aisle to the front of the Pit. Kynaston, Beck, Nell, and most of the others required for today's rehearsal were already present, and they greeted her with smiles and laughter. With a jocularity she didn't feel, she returned their sallies, but, as soon as she could, she found herself a quiet spot on a bench and sat down to reread the letter.

Less than a year after Nan's marriage to Sam - a merry Covent Garden affair attended by most of the King's Company - the King had issued a proclamation that all female parts must be played by women. The gift that had enabled Sam to portray women more convincingly even than Kynaston had proved to be a curse, as, unable to make the transition, he found suitable parts drying up. He didn't take it well, and what's more he let everyone know it. Preoccupied with plans to move to his company to a new, purpose-built theatre in Bridges Street , Killigrew had soon grown tired of Sam's tantrums and fired him.

As her husband's fortunes plummeted, it became clear that he was ill equipped to deal with adversity. That the surname 'Shelton' was now more often now prefixed by 'Nan' only rubbed salt into the wound, and he chose to blame her for his misfortunes. When she had first met him, he had struck her as open-handed, even generous. Now, she came to see things differently. Increasingly bitter, he spent his days getting drunk and frittering away her earning, and she grew accustomed to finding angry creditors at their door. It had been a relief when at last he decamped to Antwerp with his Flemish lover.

But now he is threatening to return. Pox take him!

Someone was peering over Nan 's shoulder, and she looked up in irritation.

"From an admirer?" Kynaston gave her a cheeky grin.

"My husband," she said shortly.

"Sam? Ah." A wealth of meaning suffused his words, and with a sympathetic grimace he left her in peace.

She reread the letter. There was no mention of whether Joseph would accompany Sam to London , but she thought it likely. Her room at the Cock and Pie, while a reasonable size, was too small for three, so he would insist she rented somewhere larger. In his eyes, she owed him her very acting career. He had given her her start - that much was true - but she had earned the rest herself with talent and hard work. In any case, surely she had repaid him twice over by paying off his debts and funding his travels to Antwerp ?

And if he did return? Nan had fashioned a life for herself without him. Sophia knew she was married, but a husband abroad was a different matter from a husband dwelling in the same house, even if only for appearances' sake, and Sophia wasn't the kind to share willingly. As for Phebe.... Nan realised she was grinding her teeth and made a conscious effort to relax her jaw. She would not let Sam ruin the friendship deepening between them.

But her purse was almost empty. Where on earth was she going to find the funds to prevent him from returning?

"Is everyone ready?" Killigrew's bellow drew her back to her surroundings. He was standing on the forestage, fists on hips and legs braced, glaring at those massed below him. He might play the flippant wit at court, but on his own territory he could be as pugnacious as his pet mastiff. Tucking the letter away, she rose and joined the other actors. "Good," he said. "Let us begin."

***

Saturday, 24th December 1664

Father was on another home visit, so Phebe wished the last of their customers a Merry Christmas, closed up the shop, and fetched the greenery she had gathered earlier. Mother would have scoffed at the paucity of her decorations - when Parliament had clamped down on 'Christ-tide', she'd insisted on celebrating Christmas as always, giving Father several grey hairs in the process. The King's restoration had also restored Christmas in all its glory, but Phebe had neither the time, inventiveness, nor enthusiasm for it her mother had had, so this nod to the season would have to do.

When she had hung the last of the rosemary, laurel, and holly branches from the ceiling, she jumped down from the counter, and studied the result. That twenty-foot serpent from the exhibition would have made more of an impression. She smiled at the thought. But the shop does look more festive. And it smells nice. She took another sniff and this time detected an additional appetising aroma. Hannah must have made a start on the plum porridge. She had purchased them a nice pullet to be roasted for tomorrow's dinner too, and Phebe's mouth watered at the thought.

In contrast to many, for the Bonnicks the period from Christmas Day to Epiphany was not a non-stop series of family gatherings and feasts, though they had developed a few traditions over the years. They usually exchanged greetings with the Nortons next door, but they weren't yet out of mourning and might not be in the mood for anything festive. Then Father's old friend Mr Hale always came for supper on Boxing Day, as the draper was a bachelor with only his servants for company. And Phebe always accompanied her father to Mr Rundell's house in Bread Street for dinner the day after that. In the early days, Hale had accompanied them, but these days he declined. Phebe wished she could do the same - she found the female members of the Rundell family tiresome and endured rather than enjoyed their company. Apart from that, though, it would be business as usual.

Nan was spending her Christmas Day with other members of the King's Company. Presumably because Sophia Hamilton is otherwise engaged. Phebe wrinkled her nose. Nan rarely mentioned her patroness, but from meaningful glances and overheard snippets of conversation - sometimes what was not said was as informative as what was - Phebe had gleaned a great deal about the haughty woman she had met in the playhouse tiring room.

Nan 's relationship with Sophia perturbed her. It wasn't because both were women. Access to her father's books and the necessity of dealing with customers of all sorts during her apprenticeship meant Phebe wasn't as green as she looked. Amours between women, as between men, were not unusual - consider the rumours about Lady Castlemaine and Frances Stuart. And Phebe would have had to be blind not to notice how Nan 's gaze followed her around the exhibition of rarities - something that had flustered her at first, but she had then found flattering. No, it was because Sophia was so unpleasant. And she was convinced Nan had better taste, not to mention self-respect, than that.

Did Nan tolerate Sophia's demands because of the influence she could bring to bear on Killigrew? It seemed such a... mercenary arrangement, and one unworthy of her. But perhaps Phebe was being unfair. She had met Sophia only once, after all. Perhaps Nan's patroness had a nicer, kinder side, that Nan alone was privileged to see. Phebe hoped that was the case, but she also hoped it wasn't. It was all so confusing. Besides, what right did she have to judge the quality of the company Nan kept? Not for the first time, she tried to banish all thought of Sophia from her mind, and with as little success.

Phebe was a little envious of the festivities lying in store for Nan . The King's Company was like a large, extended family, apparently, with the same constantly changing pairings, allegiances, and enmities, but its members knew how to celebrate. Phebe wasn't at all sure the uproarious celebrations Nan had hinted at would suit her temperament, but it would have been nice to be invited. But she was moping - at Christmas! - and she gave herself a mental shake. Nan had promised they could do something together on Twelfth Night. She would look forward to that instead.

Phebe was replacing the weighing scales and cone of sugar on the counter, when the bell above the shop's front door jangled. Father entered, accompanied by a blast of icy air. He bolted the door behind him, placed his instrument case on the floor next to the pestle and mortar, and took off his gloves and hat.

"It's going to be another hard frost tonight." He hung up his cloak, and she saw his nose was red with cold. He took a moment to regard the greenery above the counter, but made no comment. "We must make up a fresh batch of Theriaca Londonensis. And sell it for 5 shillings an ounce."

Even on Christmas Eve, his thoughts were all of business, she thought, disappointed. Then the content of his words registered. " London Treacle?" A thrill of terror went up her spine. "Isn't that a preventative for-"

"The plague? Aye." His nod was approving. "I met Hodges on my way home. He had just come from a patient who is showing the signs. And two others have died of it this month, in St Giles in the Fields." He took in her expression and softened his tone. "There are always a few cases at this time of the year, Phebe."

True . Her fears eased. But like most Londoners, who had imbibed dreadful tales of the 1636 outbreak with their mother's milk, she found mention of the plague unsettling.

"As news of it spreads, people will wish to purchase preventatives." His eyes brightened at the prospect, and he rubbed his hands together.

"Father!"

He waved her protest aside. "We must make a living. And at least my preventative is moderately effective. Unlike some ." That last he added darkly, thinking no doubt of Mr Davis, the apothecary in Bucklersbury who had a reputation for adulterating his medicines.

Phebe tried to remember the formulation of Bonnick's London Treacle and winced at the task ahead. It contained well over 32 ingredients, some of them hard to come by. Opium they had aplenty, and syrup of white poppies, and Canary wine. But- "I think we are running low on Virginian snake root. And I'm not sure how much Cretan dittany is left."

With a frown, he hurried through to the other room. She watched him remove the lids off an endless line of galley pots and jars and sniff or peer within, then pull out drawer after drawer, tutting at the meagreness of their contents.

"Tomorrow is the Lord's Day. Christmas Day too. We shan't be able to restock until the day after at the earliest." He closed the last drawer and straightened. "On Monday you must pay Mr Cross a visit," he said, referring to their supplier of herbs and spices in Cheapside . "Purchase what you can of dittany and snake root, Phebe, but be circumspect as to the reason or he may raise his prices."

"Yes, Father." She suppressed a sigh. So much for Christmas cheer.

***

Friday, 6th January 1665

Dick the playhouse doorkeeper inspected the ticket Nan had handed him, gave Phebe a curious glance, and waved them through. "Cutting it fine, Mrs Shelton," he warned. "Five minutes to curtain up."

"Our seats are already arranged," she reassured him. And with a smile she ushered Phebe inside.

Nan had spent much of Boxing Day and all of New Year's Eve with Sophia. Though there had been moments of enjoyment, entertaining her patron was becoming more and more of a chore. Nan had treated it as she would any other performance, however, and had succeeded to such an extent Sophia had given her enough money to render Sam's threat of returning from Antwerp harmless. The immediate crisis averted, and Sophia now safely in the country with her husband and children, Nan felt she had more than earned a light-hearted afternoon (and hopefully evening) with Phebe on this the last day of the Christmas revels.

Outside, it had barely risen above freezing all day, and the auditorium was sweltering by contrast - hardly surprising, given the coal-fired stove at the back, the numerous candles and chandeliers, and the body heat generated by hundreds of theatregoers. Nan broke into a sweat and Phebe's cheeks flushed becomingly. It was a relief to be able to hand their cloaks to the cloakroom attendant.

She waited for Phebe to pat her topknot into place, then led her down the sloping aisle, past the crescents of crowded benches, towards the front of the Pit. The musicians were working hard to make themselves heard above the hubbub, with little success, and Orange Moll's brightly clad girls were everywhere, dispensing banter, saucy winks, and love notes along with the China oranges.

Drawing abreast of the second row, she was relieved to see the two men she had hired earlier getting to their feet. She handed over the agreed two shillings, and with a murmur of thanks, took possession of the vacated seats. Two shillings plus half-a-crown for Phebe's entrance fee, add refreshments on top of that.... She did a quick mental calculation, then saw Phebe was looking at her in enquiry.

"The doors open on the dot of noon," she explained. "If I did not pay someone to reserve our seats, another would take them."

As they made themselves comfortable, some of those sitting nearby recognised Nan and called out comments concerning her absence from today's cast, her height, and her views on breeches roles. I may not be in the play, she thought, but a performance is called for. She answered with good-humoured quips that brought laughter and made Phebe's eyes dance.

"Why aren't you in Twelfth Night?" asked Phebe, leaning towards her.

"Others are better suited." Nan shrugged. "It's all to the good, as my head is crammed with lines for The Traitor. ... James Shirley's play," she clarified. "We open on the 13th."

A murmur swept through the Pit, and heads began to turn. Then a loud cheer went up, and people began clapping, and she realised that the royal box was occupied.

"What is happening?" asked Phebe.

"The King." Nan pointed to where a tall man with flowing black curls, dark eyes, a nose larger than was considered handsome, and a thin moustache stood acknowledging thunderous applause with a smile. For a moment her memory superimposed younger features topped with badly sheared hair, but the image faded to reveal the older Charles, whose features had acquired a weary, sometimes cynical cast over the years. At present, though, all trace of self-mockery was absent - the King was in his element, waving at friends and admirers. Less at ease was the diminutive, dark woman in fur-trimmed green standing at his side. "Queen Catherine is with him!" Usually Lady Castlemaine accompanied the King to the playhouse. Perhaps this was his concession to Christmas.

"Ooh!" Phebe craned her neck for a good look.

With a final smile and wave the royal couple took their seats. While everyone's attention had been diverted, the musicians had stopped playing and a familiar, portly figure with a greying beard had taken up position centre stage. Killigrew waited for the clamour to lessen before directing a sweeping bow in the King's direction and welcoming everyone to the King's Playhouse. He had once been an actor himself, starting as a boy at the Red Bull in Clerkenwell, and he put his training to good use as his voice boomed out around the auditorium.

"And now," he finally concluded, "we present, for your enjoyment and delight: Twelfth Night by William Shakespeare." And with a signal to someone offstage, and another sweeping bow, he departed.

Without further ado, one of the proscenium doors opened, and from it onto the forestage emerged Charles Hart, dressed as Duke Orsino. Nan glanced at Phebe, saw she was wearing a smile of anticipation, and settled back to watch....

It was the interval, and the musicians struck up a lively tune. All around people were standing to stretch their legs, and Nan invited Phebe to do likewise - an hour was a long time to sit on a hard bench. "Are you enjoying it?"

"Oh yes. Who's that tall man playing Malvolio?"

"Nick Burt."

"Those cross-gartered, yellow stockings." Phebe laughed.

Nan grinned. "He certainly has the legs for them."

One of Orange Moll's girls came within earshot, crying her wares. The heavy basket, hanging by a strap from her shoulder, was filled to bursting with oranges, nuts, and sweetmeats.

"Would you like something?"

Phebe followed her glance. "Oh, yes please. It's so hot in here, I've developed a thirst."

"An orange then." Nan beckoned the girl over, and noticed that she had tugged down her bodice so far it was almost indecent. Her gaze fixed firmly on the oranges, she selected two of the largest, and handed one to Phebe. With a saucy wink, the girl accepted Nan 's sixpences and moved on.

They resumed her seats and applied themselves to their oranges, Nan showing Phebe how to peel off the skin with her thumbnail, and separate it into segments. As they ate, Nan scanned the horseshoe-shaped galleries above them, spotting familiar faces in the various boxes and returning smiles and waves.

One face gave her pause. Mark Trevor. She had taken a dislike to the man, though she could not put her finger on why, and Beck had pooh-poohed her warnings.

"Someone you know?" Phebe had followed her glance.

"He follows Beck Marshall everywhere like a devoted hound." Nan dropped her orange peel on the floor and kicked it under the bench.

"You do not approve of admirers?"

"On the contrary." Nan smiled. In fact one of her own was standing at the end of her bench, trying to catch her attention. "Mr Crofts." She beckoned him over, and listened to his flattery with much batting of eyelashes and blushing of cheeks, and sent him on his way well pleased.

"Quite a performance!" said Phebe, amused. "Are all actors chameleons?"

Nan pretended to be affronted. "Like that drab specimen at Hubert's Exhibition you mean? I hope not." She sobered. "It does no harm to send him away happy. He's a widower, and lonely. But he never oversteps the bounds of propriety." Which reminded her... She glanced back up, but Trevor was no long visible. "I wish all admirers asked as little." Phebe had finished her orange. "Something else? Nuts. Sweetmeats?"

Phebe shook her head. "I fear it would ruin my appetite for supper."

Nan seized the cue she had been waiting for. "On that note, as it is Twelfth Night, I was wondering if you might join me for something to eat afterwards, with the other members of the company."

A look of chagrin crossed Phebe's face. "I wish I had known earlier. Father is expecting me back and Hannah has cooked us something special, though she would not tell me what. Oh, Nan , I'm sorry but I cannot come."

Disappointed, Nan tried to make the best of it. At least Phebe wasn't having supper with a lover, or someone who might become one. In fact, she only ever referred to neighbours or her father's friends. "My loss," she said. "And probably just as well. Last year's Twelfth Night was a rowdy affair. For which I must take some of the responsibility, I suppose, as the pea was in my portion of the cake."

Phebe's eyes widened. "You were Queen of the Revels?"

Nan nodded. "And Kynaston was King." She grinned. "The more outlandish deeds required of our 'subjects' were his, I swear."

Phebe laughed and looked wistful. "Our celebrations are much more modest. Hannah does her best, but...." She sighed.

Nan took her hand and gave it a comforting squeeze. "Perhaps next year."

"Perhaps." Her gaze unfathomable, Phebe regarded their clasped hands, and reluctantly Nan let go.

She became aware that the music had stopped, and that Beck and Will Wintersell, as Viola and the Clown, were walking out onto the forestage. In this scene Beck was wearing breeches, and appreciative whistles met her appearance. There was a mad dash of people back to their seats. Interlopers had occupied some places during the interval, and indignant squabbles broke out followed by hisses and cries of 'hush'. Onstage, Beck rolled her eyes, and Nan willed the audience to silence.

At last the hubbub quieted, and Beck struck a pose. "Save thee, friend, and thy music," she said to Wintersell. "Dost thou live by thy tabor?"

On the bench beside her, Phebe sat forward to hear his answer.

***

Wednesday, 8th February 1665

Dusk was falling when Phebe closed the shop door against the cold and hung up her cloak. The noise of her arrival brought her father, frowning, to the doorway that led to the other room.

"Where have you been?" he asked. From the green and brown smudges on his apron, and the smells wafting past him - brandy, rue, liquorice, and angelica, among others - he was making up a concoction.

"With Nan Shelton," said Phebe, surprised. "Remember?"

Since that marvellous performance of Twelfth Night, circumstances had kept them apart, so when Nan 's latest letter mentioned that, for a change, she had no performance this afternoon and asked would Phebe care to meet her, Phebe had seized the chance. Father had hemmed and hawed, but business was slow at the moment, and in the end he had given her leave to go. So why was he now carping?

Ah. "Or is it that you were expecting me back earlier? I'm sorry. I didn't mean to worry you." She smiled, wanting to share the exhilaration of her unexpected afternoon. "You'll never guess what we did. Nan used her connections to gain us admittance to St. James's Park, and we went skating."

The King's new canal had frozen over, so Nan suggested she hire them each a pair of the steel skates from Holland that were all the rage and take advantage of it. Though daunted, as she had never skated before, Phebe plucked up her courage and agreed, and they joined the laughing, whirling flocks of people sliding across the wide sheet of ice. At first Phebe was awkward and stiff, convinced at any minute she would take a tumble as others were, some with wild shrieks. But Nan 's arm steadied her, and at last she managed to relax and find a precarious balance. Soon, to her amazement and delight, she was skating unsupported alongside a beaming Nan .

Though it was bitter cold, the exertion kept them warm, and when Phebe had had enough, Nan took her to a King Street tavern to recover her breath and drink hot buttered ale. It had been pleasant to sit in the warmth and talk the time away with a friend she felt so easy with. They had avoided the gloomy topics preoccupying everyone else (whether plague was were more prevalent this year; if war with the Dutch was inevitable; and whether the comet's appearance had heralded both) and instead compared their respective childhoods - Nan had run wild in Shropshire , by the sound of things. Phebe had laughed until her jaw ached and all too soon it was time to return home.

But from her father's stony gaze he was still out of temper and she wondered at its cause. "Surely you don't begrudge me spending time with Nan ? I -"

A slashing gesture cut her short. "From now on, you are to stay away from Drury Lane , the King's Playhouse, and all who ply their trade there."

Phebe's jaw dropped. "What do you mean?"

"What I said." He took a step towards her. "I've been too lenient, I see that now. But you're my daughter and my apprentice, and from now on you will obey my wishes."

Her heart pounded. "I don't understand. Am I not to see Nan any more?" She was no longer a child and, when her time was her own, she could see who she liked and go where she liked. "That's not fair, Father. How can you be so unjust?"

"Unjust!" His cheeks flushed. "This afternoon I was rushed off my feet and needed my apprentice, but where was she? Too busy enjoying herself. Skating , of all things."

A broad, freckled face peered around his shoulder. Their raised voices had brought Hannah up from the kitchen to investigate. The cookmaid glanced from Phebe to her father and back again, and with a sympathetic grimace beat a hasty retreat.

Angrily, Phebe returned her attention to her father. "Am I never to be allowed to enjoy myself? Until now I've taken little time for myself." She put her hands on her hips. "You know, none better, how few friends I've had over the years. Yet now I've finally... finally... found one, you forbid me her company. Must you keep me all to yourself? Is that it?" A thought struck her. "Or is it Nan 's profession you disapprove of? Or the rumours you have heard?"

"Rumours?" The genuineness of his bafflement gave her pause. It wasn't like Father to lash out. Something, or someone, had upset him. Or frightened him. And what was that about being rushed off his feet this afternoon? "What has happened?" Concerned, she went to his side and rested a hand on his arm. "And why did you need me this afternoon?"

At her touch, his anger left him as quickly as it had arrived, and he regarded her in silence. "I'm making up more London Treacle," he said at last.

Phebe glanced at the shelf behind the counter, and saw a gap where the blue stoneware jar containing the plague preventative always sat. "But there was enough for-"

"I exhausted our supply and was forced to ask several customers to return tomorrow."

The implication hit her. "Has there been another plague death?"

He nodded. "Yesterday in Long Acre . The house has been locked up, and its occupants confined. I heard of it from an apothecary in St Giles in the Fields: William Boghurst. And from the numbers asking for treacle today, news of it is spreading."

Long Acre was just around the corner from Drury Lane , Phebe realised with dismay. No wonder he wanted her to stay away. It wasn't Nan 's reputation that concerned him but his daughter's safety. Was Nan aware of the danger?

"A few cases are to be expected at this time of the year." She pressed his arm. "You told me that."

He gave her a wry look. "Aye. But Boghurst suspects there are more waiting to surface. This cold spell is keeping them in check, but once the weather warms-"

"Suspects." She seized on the word.

He frowned. "Boghurst knows his business, Phebe. And when my sole surviving child is at risk-"

Father rarely mentioned Phebe's siblings, who disease and childbirth had taken one by one, along with his wife, while he stood by, powerless. She did a quick calculation. Mary would have been 19 this year, and Tom and Jack 15 and 14. That he had alluded to them, however obliquely, showed how shaken he was. He needed reassurance.

"I may not have as much knowledge as you, Father, but you've given me sufficient to keep me safe." He sighed, but didn't contradict her. "Good. Then let's have no more talk of forbidding me to see Nan . I'll warn her of the danger, and urge her to find safer lodgings." He grunted. "In the meantime, I'm here now, so I'll help you make up that fresh batch of treacle." She pursed her lips. "And if it's as much in demand as you say, we can put up our price."

For the first time since she had returned home, his eyes brightened. Bristles rasped as he gave his jaw a thoughtful rub. "We can indeed."

***

Thursday, 2nd March 1665

John Dryden looked up. "That's all I have." A shaft of weak morning sunlight from the auditorium's cupola illuminated his golden curls and Nan took a moment to admire the effect. "There'll be an epilogue, of course," he added, "but I've yet to write it." His face tensed as he glanced at Killigrew, then eased at the actor-manager's nod.

"Thank you, Mr Dryden. An excellent play, as always. And certain to be as successful as The Indian Queen." Killigrew clapped, and Nan and the others took their cue and joined in the applause.

"Thank God that's over," muttered Nan . Dryden's droning voice had made the reading interminable, and the hard Pit bench had numbed her buttocks. Why he always insisted on reading his plays aloud himself, when there were experienced actors to hand-

"Fewer deaths than his last one," said Beck, who was sitting next to her.

"But the torture scene makes up for it," chimed in Kynaston from Beck's other side. "A gruesome lot, those Spaniards."

Nan had to take their word for it. The Indian Emperor had not held her interest, but it was often the case that a play only came to life in performance. For much of the reading, in fact, her mind had been elsewhere - on that magical afternoon spent skating with Phebe in St James's Park.

They had not been able to meet since then, but the next time they did Nan would walk to the City rather than put Phebe in harm's way or risk angering Mr Bonnick. News of the shut up house in Long Acre had made everyone in the King's Company uneasy, and Phebe's concerned letters had added to Nan 's anxiety, but no more cases of plague had been reported, so she had consigned it to the back of her mind. Life had returned to normal, and in fact people were more concerned about Castlemaine's latest antics or that the size of a loaf had been reduced yet again than about the plague.

"I wonder what part Killigrew has in mind for me," said Kynaston.

"Cydaria?" suggested Beck slyly, naming Montezuma's daughter. She let out a yelp - Kynaston had pinched her - and from the bench behind them came her sister Anne's exaggerated sigh.

"And now to the parts," announced Killigrew, getting to his feet, and turning towards the stage. "Dan," he bellowed.

The prompt man emerged from a proscenium door, his arms full of ribbon-bound scrolls. He came to the edge of the forestage, knelt beside the low railing, and handed down the scrolls. Even from this distance Nan could see the shadows under his eyes - he must have been up all night copying out their parts.

Killigrew accepted the scrolls with a nod of thanks, and returned his attention to the actors. "Mr Dryden and I are in agreement, so I want no argument." He aimed his sharpest glances at Mohun and Hart, the most argumentative members of the company. "When I call your name, come and collect your part." He consulted a piece of paper. "Kynaston. You are to be Guyomar."

Eyes bright, Kynaston went to claim his scroll, then resumed his seat, untied the ribbon, and began to read.

"Hart: Cortez. Mohun: Montezuma. Burt: Vasquez," said Killigrew, consulting his list.

The three rose and collected their scrolls. "The Emperor himself!" Mohun couldn't resist crowing, as he limped back to his bench.

A scroll fell from Killigrew's grip, and rolled across the floorboards. Wintersell pounced on it and handed it back, and Killigrew took it with a smile. "I was just coming to you. Wintersell: Odmar. Mrs Marshall-" Nan sensed Anne listening hard. "- Almeria ."

"A pox on it," muttered Beck. "I was hoping for her."

"Beck Marshall: Cydaria," said Killigrew.

With a pleased exclamation, Beck rose to her feet.

"Wouldn't Nell make a better Cydaria?" Hart's voice halted Beck in her tracks and Nan heard Nell suck in her breath. She twisted round in her seat and gave Nell a sympathetic glance - she knew all too well that having a patron was a double-edged sword. Cheeks red, Nell was unable to meet Beck's angry gaze.

"Mrs Gwyn is still too unseasoned," came Dryden's voice, and all head turned to look at him.

Hart's brows drew together. "But-"

"Enough," said Killigrew, his eyes cold. Even Hart knew that nothing could sway the actor-manager in this mood, and with a sour look he resumed his seat.

Still muttering, Beck collected her scroll and returned to the bench.

"Sorry, Beck," whispered Nell, leaning forward. "I had no idea he was going to do that."

Beck grunted, but some of the sullenness left her face.

The allocation of parts continued. "Mrs Shelton," said Killigrew, and Nan pricked up her ears. "Alibech."

Almeria 's sister. Surprised at the substantial nature of the role - Sophia must have been whispering in her cousin's ear again - she rose and claimed her part. She couldn't wait to tell Phebe of her good fortune. But as she untied the ribbon and saw the number of lines she must learn in less than three weeks, dismay muted her pleasure.

" When do we open?" said Kynaston, echoing her thoughts.

When all the parts had been distributed, Killigrew turned the discussion to the rehearsal schedule. Dryden must be there for the first week, so he could make his intentions for the play and its characters clear. As for the actors, he had made a rough draft- He broke off and called out, "Mrs Behn. How kind of you to come. Is that the object we talked of?"

A young woman was standing in the aisle, looking around with eyes full of curiosity and intelligence. Draped over one arm was a gorgeous feathered cloak. "Mr Killigrew. Aye, this is the cloak I brought back from Surinam . The trader told me the feathers make it waterproof and-"

He cut her short. "A fine prop for The Indian Emperor. Don't you agree, Mr Dryden?"

Golden curls bobbed as the playwright nodded. "A fine prop indeed."

"Splendid. Give it to Dan, will you?"

At Killigrew's words, the prompt man took the steps down from the stage two at a time and accepted the cloak from her. Relieved of her burden, the new arrival seemed uncertain whether to remain or leave.

Nan shot her a smile of sympathy, and Mrs Behn took it as an invitation to join her on the bench. "You're Mrs Shelton, aren't you?"

Flattered to be recognised, Nan nodded. "Call me Nan ."

"You many call me Aphra. I saw you in The Rival Queens and enjoyed it."

"Thank you."

"A substantial part?" Aphra indicated the scroll in Nan 's hands.

"Aye. And better than I had hoped for."

"Your height goes against you?"

The perceptive question made Nan snort. "Name me one leading man who wants his lady to overtop him."

"Alas, they can be sensitive about their lack of inches." Aphra grinned then sobered. "I'm seeking employment. I had thought to curry favour with Mr Killigrew by lending him the cloak." She grimaced. "But he doesn't seem very receptive."

Nan glanced to where the actor-manager was in animated discussion of the draft schedule with Mohun and Hart. "He's good at avoiding those who don't suit his purpose. Are you an actress?"

Aphra shook her head. "I write a fair hand and have been told I have a pithy turn of phrase. I was thinking, perhaps a copyist..."

Nan pursed her lips. "Dan might welcome assistance creating prompt books and copying out parts. But whether Killigrew would be willing to pay for the privilege...." Another idea occurred to her. "A pithy turn of phrase? We're always in need of theatre bills and playbills to entice in a good audience. Just the other day, Killigrew was complaining ours are as dull as ditchwater."

Aphra's face brightened. "Then I will broach him on the subject. Thank you." Her tone became confiding. "My husband is absent, so I must support myself."

"Mine too," said Nan . "He decamped to Antwerp two years ago." To set up house with his handsome Flemish painter.

" Antwerp ?" said Aphra, intrigued.

But Killigrew had finished conferring and was calling the seated actors to attention. "I beg your pardon. I must attend to this," said Nan .

"I'll pin up a copy of the amended schedule in the scene room," said Killigrew. "Make sure you are here on the right day at the right time or I'll dock you a shilling." He ignored the groan that went up. "Right. First rehearsal is tomorrow morning, 10 sharp." He waved dismissal.

With a buzz of conversation, the actors rose and began to make their way towards the exit. Nan and Aphra rose too.

"I'm off to the Rose Tavern for some refreshment," said Nan . "It's just around the corner. Care to join me?"

But Aphra's attention was on Killigrew's receding figure. "Another time perhaps. I must strike now, while the iron is hot, about those playbills." She threw Nan a quick smile of apology. "Thank you for the invitation though. And for your help." With that she hurried off after the actor manager.

"Good luck," called Nan after her.

***

Sunday, 2nd April 1665

Though Father had warned her it was premature, Phebe allowed herself to feel a cautious optimism. The weather had changed for the better, indicating that the long hard Winter was over, but the threatened outbreak of plague had failed to materialise. So far. He was right, she knew. But, for today, she was determined to put all thoughts of the contagion from her mind and walk with a spring in her step, and cloud-scudded blue skies and a warm breeze seemed happy to conspire. It's the perfect day for our excursion.

After church, instead of accompanying Father back home, she set off northwest to St John Street . Nan 's note had said a carriage would collect her from outside Hicks' Hall, where the twenty-nine regicides had been indicted, at half past eleven, so she had no time to dawdle. The stone-dressed brick building came into view just as a church bell chimed the half hour, and Phebe halted outside its entrance with a sense of satisfaction that she had timed it to perfection. While she caught her breath, she surveyed the road that led eventually to the Strand for the carriage.

Nan had failed to detail either the size of the party going to Islington Fields or whom it would include. The prospect of being confined at such close quarters with people she might not know was daunting, for if Nan 's friends were as curious about Phebe as she was about them, she could expect questioning. But she would not let it spoil her day.

She scrutinised the road again, but each carriage that came into view went sailing past, raising and dashing her hopes. When the church bell chimed the quarter hour and the promised carriage had still not appeared, she began to pace up and down, her mood dipping. Had she misunderstood? She was about to pull out Nan 's note and reread it, when a hackney appeared in the distance, its coachman reining in his horses.

At last.

"Have you been waiting long?" came Nan 's voice, as the carriage halted in front of her. The window's leather blind was open and she saw Nan peering down at her. "I'm sorry for the delay. There was an accident in the Strand ."

Phebe waved her hand in dismissal. "No matter."

The coachman dismounted and opened the door, and with a smile of thanks she boarded. Three others beside Nan were waiting in the dim interior, and she took in their faces with interest. Nan , Beck, Kynaston... I wonder who the other woman is? Beck's damask rose perfume was overpowering in such a small space, and Phebe stifled the urge to sneeze. Still, it's better than body odour on a hot day.

"Mrs Behn has agreed to join us." Nan indicated the stranger sharing the seat with her. She was rather striking with her high forehead and long neck. "Aphra, permit me to introduce the friend I told you of, Mrs Phebe Bonnick."

Phebe exchanged a nod and made herself comfortable between the two women. "Are you also an actress?"

Aphra smiled. "Alas, my talents lie elsewhere." The carriage bounced on its straps and lurched into motion, heading up the Islington Road . "My greatest wish is that one day the King's Company will perform one of my plays and it will be as well received as any by-"

"Shakespeare?" suggested Kynaston, eyes twinkling.

"Ha!" Aphra gave him a wry look. "My aim is a little lower. Being acclaimed as England 's first woman playwright would do."

"Hear, hear," murmured Beck.

"But that's in the future," Aphra went on. "For now, I am keeping the wolf from the door by doing any prompt or copy work Killigrew can spare." She paused. "He may have another task for me soon, he says. It will involve travel to the Continent. After Surinam , that should make a pleasant change."

" Surinam ?" asked Phebe.

Aphra nodded. "I lived there for several years."

Phebe was rather hazy about where 'there' was, but didn't like to admit it. She would ask Nan later, when they were more private.

"I'd be wary of any project of Killigrew's that doesn't involve the playhouse," said Beck. "He has shady friends at Court."

Kynaston nodded.

Aphra shrugged. "I can take care of myself."

Silence fell, and after a moment Nan said, "It was Aphra's idea we should go to Islington Fields."

Phebe accepted the change of subject with a smile. "Then I owe her my gratitude. I'm looking forward to taking the air and clearing the coal dust from my lungs."

"When did you last visit?" asked Kynaston.

She tried to recollect. "Ten years ago, perhaps. Are there windmills?"

He shook his head. "That's Finsbury Fields."

"Ah. In that case it was fifteen years ago. I remember the Ducking Ponds." She had explored them with Mother. I thought nothing in the world could ever harm me while she held my hand, she remembered with a pang.

"Ducking Ponds?" Aphra sounded intrigued. "For witches and scolds?"

Nan chuckled. "For wildfowl and the hunters who come to shoot them." The carriage lurched then righted itself, and her grip on Phebe's arm steadied them both. "As I'm sure you know full well."

Aphra grinned. " Nan tells me you are apprenticed to an apothecary." She fixed Phebe with an interested gaze. "Is that true? And how did you two first meet? Was she ill?"

Nan shot Phebe a look of apology and Phebe shrugged. "It's true. My father owns a shop in Walbrook. As to how we met, it was outside the King's Playhouse. Nan rescued my belongings from a thief, and dented her sword in the process." She wondered if she was blushing. "I thought at first she was a man. And that her sword was real."

"Wearing breeches, was she?" Beck grinned.

Aphra's eyes sparkled. "Sounds like a scene from a play."

"Not one by Dryden," said Nan , her tone dry. "Perhaps if it had featured conquistadors, Indians, and bloodshed...."

Either Phebe was getting used to the cloying scent of damask rose or the breeze through the window had freshened. The coach slowed, and Kynaston peered out the window.

"We're here," he announced.

The coachman handed Phebe down into a lush meadow, and she took a deep breath and closed her eyes. The faint, grinding rumble of a waterwheel gusted to her on the breeze and in the distance a dog's bark was followed by the indignant quacks of ducks. She opened her eyes to find Nan observing her with a smile.

"Thank you for inviting me."

"My pleasure."

While the women stretched the stiffness from arms and shoulders and shook the creases from their skirts, Kynaston talked to the coachman. After a moment, the man nodded and led the horses to the King's Head Inn, a little further up the road. Other carriages had parked there, and their coachmen were catching up on the gossip while they smoked or watered their horses at the great stone trough.

"He's agreed to wait three hours," said Kynaston, rejoining them

Beck nodded approval. "That should be ample. Taking the air is always best when done in moderation, I say."

"Anyone for archery?" Aphra pointed at the row of butts in the distance. But Phebe's attention had been captured by sunlight glittering off water.

Nan caught the longing in her gaze and arched an eyebrow at her. Spirits soaring, Phebe nodded.

"Phebe and I are for the Ducking Ponds," said Nan . "Anyone care to join us?"

"All that mud?" Beck pulled a face. "Besides, a hunter might mistake us for his target."

"Or his dog sink its fangs into my calf," said Kynaston. He gave the butts a thoughtful glance. "It's been some time since I tried my hand at archery."

"Shall we have a competition?" asked Aphra at once.

His eyes brightened. "And Beck can keep tally."

Beck's expression told everyone what she thought of that notion.

"Oh, go on," coaxed Aphra.

Beck rolled her eyes and grumbled but in the end acquiesced.

"I'm glad that's settled," said Nan . "Shall we go?" Phebe nodded, and they set off along a bridle track. "Let's meet up at the inn in two hours for cakes and ale," Nan shouted over her shoulder.

Kynaston waved acknowledgment.

"I'm glad they chose not to accompany us." Nan tucked Phebe's arm through hers. "It's been ages since we could talk. I've been glad of your letters - they brighten my day - but they're not the same."

"They aren't, are they?" The cowslips that studded the track caught Phebe's eye. Their distilled juice was good for the complexion; the roots, if boiled, eased rheumatism and gout; and the flowers when they appeared, would make a tea that cured headaches and insomnia.

"Assessing the medicinal properties and uses of the greenery?" asked Nan .

Phebe blushed and nodded. "My training has made it second nature, I fear."

"No need for excuses. It's a useful skill. I can tell a dock leaf from a nettle and use the one to cure the sting of the other," said Nan , "but otherwise my knowledge is scant."

That surprised Phebe. "I thought you grew up in the country."

Nan nodded. " Shropshire . I learned which nuts and berries are good to eat, but not what can cure. We left all that to Widow Goody and Apothecary Fletcher." She shrugged. "After my mother died - I never knew my father - I spent my time poaching or helping my uncle and aunt about the inn. I can still tap a keg with one blow, and carry a tray of tankards without spilling a drop."

Poaching? Phebe wasn't quite sure what to say to that. "Useful skills too, I'm sure."

"Ha!" said Nan , amused.

The track brought them to the first pond, and Nan suggested that they amble around its perimeter and that of the next pond then follow the reedy riverbank for a little way. They stopped often to listen to the birds chirping in the hedgerows and savour the sun on their faces, and for the first time in ages, Phebe felt at peace.

All too soon, Nan shaded her eyes to gauge the position of the sun. "Time to turn back."

"Already?"

With a sigh, they retraced their steps.

"I wonder how the others have fared," said Nan . "If Aphra beat Kynaston, he'll be annoyed. As for Beck, I doubt she stayed with them for long - the dairies here are famed for their syllabub and frumenty and she has a fondness for both." She caught Phebe's expression. "Hungry?"

Phebe nodded. "All this exercise and fresh air."

"Then we must feed you well."

They found their companions in the taproom of the King's Head, the table in front of them littered with half-filled cups and crumb-spotted plates. Before Nan could sit, one of the other patrons hailed her, and with a muttered, "This won't take long," she plastered on a smile and went to speak to him.

"He accosted us too," said Kynaston, as Phebe sat next to him. "I've an idea I've seen him at the playhouse."

Aphra smiled at her. "Enjoy your walk?"

"Yes, thank you. And you your archery?"

Aphra nodded.

"Who won?"

"Aphra," said Beck with a smirk.

"Your stomach had got the better of you by then," huffed Kynaston, "so how would you know?"

Beck tossed her head. "You can't come to Islington and not sample the cream cakes."

"Well you can't," he said archly. "The tiring woman's always having to let out your gowns."

Beck's cheeks reddened with annoyance, and Phebe feared there was going to be a quarrel, but Nan 's return distracted her. From the twinkle in Kynaston's eye, he was well aware of Beck's dark glances and would have continued his needling, but Aphra turned the conversation to safer waters. Phebe decided she liked this new acquaintance of Nan 's.

With a sigh of relief, Nan settled next to Phebe and beckoned over the serving boy. "Two cups of ale and-" She arched an eyebrow. "Some cheesecake?"

Phebe's stomach rumbled approval. She nodded.

Half an hour later, their hunger and thirst sated and Kynaston and Beck still bickering like an old married couple, they emerged from the inn. Kynaston had just departed to pluck their coachman from the others and inform him they were ready to leave when Beck sucked in her breath and froze.

"What is it?" asked Phebe, turning to follow the direction of her glance, and Nan and Aphra followed suit.

A young man was striding towards them, one hand resting on his sword's pommel. Phebe remembered seeing him in the playhouse tiring room, his handsome face all smiles. From his scowl, he was in a very different mood.

"Did you tell Mark Trevor we'd be here?" asked Nan .

"Of course not," said Beck. "I've had no dealings with him for over a week. I thought...."

Phebe was all at sea. "Thought what?"

"I complained about him to the Lord Chamberlain," said Beck. "I assumed, when he stopped coming...."

"That he'd received a warning and agreed to keep his distance?" asked Nan . Beck nodded, and Nan gave a grimace. "From his manner, I fear he has only now received it."

Phebe could see the anger in his deep-set eyes too, and as he closed the distance between them felt a thrill of unease.

A rumble of wheels and jingling of harnesses made them all look round. Their carriage was ready and Kynaston stood by its open door, beckoning.

"Come on." Nan gripped Phebe's arm and urged her into an undignified trot towards it. "You too," she called back, and with an exchange of glances, Beck and Aphra followed.

"Aye, run, jade," came Trevor's bellow. "How dare you drag my name through the mud!"

When they reached the carriage, Nan shoved Phebe at a startled Kynaston. "Put her on board. The others too. I'll deal with Trevor."

"But-" she protested, but Kynaston was already bundling her inside.

A seat came up and bumped Phebe on the nose. She yelped and tried to right herself, but something squashed her back down. "Let me up." She struck out with her elbow and heard an exclamation, then the weight shifted, and she could breathe once more.

Phebe straightened her clothes and sat up to find Beck rubbing her ribs and giving her a reproachful look. "Was that you? Sorry."

An outraged Aphra entered the carriage, backwards. "I said unhand me!" she shouted. With a shrug, Kynaston backed away.

There was no sign of Nan .

While Aphra recovered her composure, Phebe grasped the sill of the open window and peered out. Trevor was advancing on the carriage, his sword drawn... and on Nan , who had planted herself in his path.

" Nan ," she shouted, though it came out as a whisper. Where were Kynaston and the coachman? And why was that knot of bystanders in the distance, attracted by the commotion, making no move to intervene?

"Come no further, Sir," said Nan , her presence becoming commanding. An actor's trick? "You are unwelcome here."

Trevor was only a few paces from her. "Get out of my way."

"I will not. And if you do not stop harassing Mrs Marshall, I shall inform the King. He won't tolerate such base conduct towards an actress of his company."

"Actress?" He hawked up phlegm and spat, the unpleasant gobbet landing inches from Nan 's shoe. "You are whores, madam. All of you. Now, for the last time, get out of my way."

"Have no fear, Beck," came Aphra's voice from behind Phebe. "To get to you he'll have to come through me first."

"Have you lost your wits?" Fear made Beck's voice tremble.

"I can give as good account of myself as any man. Does anyone have a sword?"

"Of course not."

"Hush," said Phebe, unable to tear her gaze from Nan . What is she doing? If she doesn't get out of his way....

"Would you attack an unarmed woman?" asked Nan , though whether she was referring to herself or Beck, Phebe was unclear.

Trevor's cheeks reddened. "She attacked me with her poisonous complaint."

"And will injuring Mrs Marshall mend your reputation?"

"God's blood, woman, will you get out of my way?" He didn't even try to push her aside, he slashed at her with his sword.

As sunlight flashed off the blade, Phebe cried out in terror, but it turned to astonishment as Nan moved towards him rather than away, inside the arc of his sword. Turning side-on, Nan took his sword-hand in a two-handed grip and, with a sharp twist that elicited a loud yelp, took possession of his weapon. Almost as an afterthought, she drove her elbow deep into his abdomen. His face a mask of pained surprise, he dropped to his knees. Dirt caked the knees of his expensive breeches, and Phebe heard him gasping for breath.

"Oh that was well done." Aphra's head squeezed beside Phebe's in the open window. "I must ask her to teach me that trick."

"What trick?" came Beck's voice.

"Hush." Nan was circling the kneeling Trevor in a manner that could only be described as predatory.

"Do not threaten us again. Nor think of hiring someone else to do the deed." He lifted his head, and Nan leaned closer, until their faces were almost touching. Phebe had to strain to make out her words. "I was in earnest when I said I would inform the King. He owes me a favour. I would prefer not to waste it on the likes of you, but I will if you give me cause."

For a moment longer, he remained defiant, then his shoulders sagged and he looked away.

The sound of ragged clapping wafted over from the knot of people watchers. Nan beckoned them over, handed the sword to one, and directed the others to assist Trevor. "You and the coachman can come out now, Kynaston," she called. The two men edged into view, their expressions sheepish.

The crisis averted, a wave of emotion washed over Phebe and she found herself, without her conscious volition, pushing Aphra to one side, tumbling out of the carriage, and planting herself in Nan 's path.

"How could you?" The words spilled from her lips in fury. "For the love of God, Nan , he had a sword . What if he had wounded you? What if he had killed you?" The mere thought appalled her, and she found she was shaking.

Nan blinked at her in startlement, opened her mouth, then shut it again.

"What is happening?" came Beck's voice from inside the carriage. "Is he coming for me again?"

"No," said Aphra from the window. "They are escorting him to the inn - we'll see no more of Trevor." Her gaze travelled from Phebe to Nan and back again and she smiled and cocked her head. "Now that little matter has been dealt with, is their any further reason for delaying our departure?"

As suddenly as it had arisen, Phebe's anger dissipated. "I beg your pardon, Nan ." She felt mortified. "I don't know what came over me."

"I do," said Aphra brightly.

Nan shot her a quelling look. "And I beg yours, Phebe. I acted without thought. Had I known it would cause you any concern-" She winced. "I must mend my ways. But Aphra is right, and the coachman is waiting. Here. Let me help you." Her hand beneath Phebe's elbow assisted her into the carriage once more.

"All hail, Queen of the Amazons," said Aphra, as they took their seats, and Beck gave Nan a grateful nod.

The last to board was Kynaston, who had recovered his poise. He pulled the door closed and rapped his knuckles on the roof, and with a lurch, the carriage set off. Phebe tried to relax, but found it hard - coming so close to losing Nan had shaken her, and she took comfort from the press of Nan 's thigh against hers.

" Nan , you must show me that trick you used on Trevor." Aphra's request earned her a sceptical look. "I'm in earnest," she protested.

" What trick?" asked Beck. "I asked before but no one has enlightened me."

Nan sighed. "A piece of stage business I learned while helping a friend rehearse a sword fight scene."

Phebe gaped at her. Stage business? Against a real sword? God save me from actors.

***

Thursday, 27th April 1665

Nan had eaten better breakfasts. There was barely enough ale in the bottom of her barrel to wash down the stale bread crust. Making a mental note to buy more from the taproom downstairs later, she straightened her dress and grabbed her lines.

As she let herself out onto the Cock and Pie's landing, Nell emerged from her room opposite, in a cloud of vanilla scent. She too clutched a ribbon-bound scroll.

"Going to rehearsal?" asked Nan , as she pulled the door closed behind her.

Nell nodded and waited for her with a companionable smile. The flame-haired actress was alone now, but from the sounds of pleasure Nan had heard coming from Nell's door last night, she had spent it with Hart. They made their way downstairs and out onto the street. It had rained earlier in the week, but you'd never had known it. From the stink, someone had added the contents of their chamberpot to the pile of rubbish and horse droppings that threatened to block Drury Lane 's central drain. Nan wiped a speck of dust from her eye and thought wistfully of cool, woodland glades.

They set off towards Playhouse Passage, and Nan noticed that Nell's usual jauntiness was absent and she seemed preoccupied. "Have you and Hart quarrelled?"

For a moment Nell looked blank, then she smiled, unabashed - having a mother who ran a bawdy house had made her mature beyond her years. "It's true Hart spent the night with me. He left early not because we argued but because he wanted to discuss something with Mohun and Lacy before approaching Killigrew."

Poor Killigrew. Nan foresaw another heated discussion in the actor manager's future.

"No. I was thinking about my mother. A friend of hers is among those confined inside the Ship."

Nan blinked. "The inn at St Giles in the Fields?" The news was everywhere that someone had died of the plague there, and now all its occupants were shut up for 40 days. "Is your mother... well?" she asked delicately.

Nell nodded. "Aye, thank God. She hasn't been near the Ship for several weeks now. But she is worried about her friend." Nell frowned. "How can it be right to lock up the healthy with the sick?"

"Things have been done that way since the days of King James."

"But does it work?"

All Nan could do was shrug.

Nell sighed. "I must think of pleasanter matters." Her gaze sharpened. "I thought you were spending last night at Mrs Hamilton's."

The change of topic made Nan grimace. "She would have liked me to."

"Have you two quarrelled?" Nell threw Nan 's own question back at her.

Nan pursed her lips. It wasn't that she was averse to bed sports so much as the long stretches of tedium in between. She and Sophia had so little in common, they should not have been acquaintances let alone more. But it was her own fault. She had placed herself in Sophia's control, and was now complaining that the collar chafed. "It's complicated," she said at last.

"Because she Killigrew's cousin?"

They waited for a coach and four to pass, then crossed the road. "That's part of it."

Nell shot her a shrewd look. "And is the remainder Phebe Bonnick?"

Her friends were too observant, thought Nan . First Aphra, now Nell.... "It's true, if I were free of this... entanglement I would like us to be more than friends. But Phebe's from a different world, Nell. I doubt if such a thing has even occurred to her." Though Phebe's reaction when Nan had confronted Mark Trevor had been... interesting.

"Nor will it," said Nell, practical as always, "unless you broach the subject."

"Mrs Gwyn." A hail from across the road interrupted them. A red-faced man, his vast stomach straining his doublet, was trying to catch Nell's attention. "Mrs Gwyn. I saw you in the Indian Emperor. Magnificent! You should have had a much larger part."

Nell acknowledged him with a pleased smile. "I should, shouldn't I?" she shouted back, her London accent, which was softening under Hart's tutelage, making a reappearance. "Come and see our revival of Love's Mistress. I'm Amaryllis."

"You should be Venus," he cried, indignant.

"Thank you." Her elaborate curtsey made him beam. "Perhaps, in a year or two."

"And you, Mrs Shelton," he called, noticing Nan at last. "What is your part?"

"Proserpine. We open on 15th May, should you wish to make sure of a seat."

"I do indeed." He swept her a bow and Nell an even deeper one that made her snort with amusement, then hurried away.

They turned down the passage leading to the playhouse. "Congratulations," said Nan . "You're fast gaining your own following. I've heard some even call you: 'Pretty witty Nell'."

"Do they?" Nell's peal of pleased laughter made her smile.

They entered the auditorium to find Hart, Mohun, and Lacy in heated discussion with a red-faced Killigrew on the forestage. As they drew nearer, Nan heard the names of several actors prominent in the Duke's Company being bandied about. Never a good sign.

Beck pulled a face as they joined her on a bench. "I fear they will soon come to blows."

Nan shrugged. "The time to worry is when those three have no opinion."

"Hart means well," said Nell, sounding defensive.

Kynaston squashed in next to them, his expression thoughtful. He was wearing a new doublet. After his last clothing catastrophe - he had a weakness for the latest fashions - he'd promised his wife he'd curb his spending, so it must be a gift from an admirer. "Have you heard about Dr Porteus's daughter?"

His choice of subject matter threw Nan for a moment. "The society physician?"

"Aye. His daughter died last week of plague, they say, but Porteus and the Reverend Patrick colluded to give her an ordinary burial."

"Patrick?" Nell's eyes widened. "But isn't he-"

"Vicar at the church in the Piazza," said Nan . "Aye." Just around the corner. One case of plague didn't mean much. But coming so soon after the death at the Ship Inn.... Uneasy, she shifted on the hard bench.

"They're denying it, of course," continued Kynaston. "And have Lord Brouncker's support."

"Bad for business," said Beck. "He doesn't want to drive people away from Covent Garden ." Brow creased, she scanned each of their faces in turn. "Should we be taking precautions?"

"Such as what? Closing the playh-?" began Nell, but Kynaston hissed her to silence and muttered something about tempting Fate.

Nan shared his alarm. Hart liked to regale them with racy tales of when Cromwell had closed the playhouses, forcing actors like him to find other employment or starve. He'd followed the King overseas, and had a series of adventures in the Hague and then in Paris . But he'd been lucky - no actor in their right mind wished for a return to those dark days. Besides, Nan could not do without her weekly wage. Yesterday, another begging letter from Sam had arrived. Joseph had somehow managed to alienate his patron, so there would be no more commissions from that quarter. Once more her husband was in need of funds, but she would prefer not to have to apply yet again to Sophia.

"Apothecary Boghurst could advise us," said Nell. "He's supplying medicines to those inside the Ship Inn." She saw Beck's confusion and went on, "I know because my mother has a friend inside."

"Is she... well?" asked Beck.

Nell gave her a wry smile. "Mother? As hale as ever."

"Why don't we consult Mr Finch in Russell Street ?" said Kynaston, pulling the conversation back to the subject under discussion. "He's much closer."

"Or I could ask Phebe," said Nan . "Her father's an apothecary."

Beck pursed her mouth. "Why not ask them all? Three heads are better than one, after all."

Nods of agreement met her suggestion, and, the matter dealt with for the present, they returned their attention to their surroundings.

On the forestage, a resolution of sorts had been reached, and Hart, Mohun and Lacy bounded down the side steps, leaving Killigrew to call his actors to order. "Let us make a start on Act III. Prompt?" Dan the prompt man gave him a nod of acknowledgment. "Psyche, Cupid, Zephirus, Boreus?" The actors playing the parts specified got to their feet. "Clown, Amaryllis, and Swains, make ready. You're next."

For a while, Nan simply watched the rehearsal, then she unscrolled her own part and began to read. Her entrance wasn't until Act V, and she had memorised most of it already - by the time Killigrew was ready for her she would be word perfect. She was mouthing Proserpine's speech to Psyche to herself when running footsteps thundered up the aisle, breaking her concentration. Annoyed, she turned to see who had made so dramatic an entrance. One of the scene painters, Sam Towers , was bent double, trying to catch his breath.

"What the Devil is it, Towers?" came Killigrew's bellow from the stage.

"News from the Ship Inn." He straightened and pressed a fist into his side. "There's been a riot," he panted. "Their neighbours broke the tavern door off its hinges."

Nan 's heart sank.

"Weren't they in quarantine?" came Mohun's deep bass voice, above the perturbed murmur.

"Not any more," said Towers. "Plague or no plague, the occupants are loose." He paused. "And God help the rest of us."

***

Tuesday, 2nd May 1665

The smell of the oysters Hannah had served Phebe and herself for supper - father had dined out - mixed oddly with the lingering scents of Father's latest concoction as Phebe replaced Hannah Woolley's Observations in Physic and Chirurgery on the bookshelf. She selected Culpeper's Complete Herbal and English Physician , and, with a weary grunt, placed the heavy volume on the dining room table, now cleared of dishes, then resumed her seat and began to leaf through it.

All day, they'd been rushed off their feet, dealing with a steady stream of customers with requests from a block of Castile Soap, through London Treacle, to something that would ease a patient's passing from this world to the next. After that, Phebe had delivered the prescriptions. As a result, her feet, back, and head ached, and she would have liked nothing better than an early night. But she had told Nan she would research plague preventatives, and the burden of responsibility weighed heavily.

The truth was, it would be much easier if Nan were to relocate to new lodgings, somewhere well out of harm's way, but Nan was reluctant to go, claiming the Cock and Pie was convenient for the playhouse. Which left Bonnick's London Treacle. Phebe was as happy to recommend it as Nan was to order some, but it was by no means foolproof. So for her own peace of mind, Phebe had decided to spread the net wider than the London Pharmacopoeia that was her father's bible .

The more popular almanacs were not to be trusted, of course - how anyone could countenance wearing an amulet containing toad poison was beyond her - but she had thought Hannah Woolley's book might contain something useful. Unfortunately, it hadn't. She found it frustrating and baffling that there wasn't some tried and tested remedy. The plague had been around for centuries - a consensus should have been reached by now. But this person recommended tobacco as a prophylactic; that one opted for never venturing forth without a full stomach; and yet another endorsed eating the kernel of a walnut taken with salt and rue and roasted inside a fig. As for Doctor Hodges, Phebe remembered him saying he always popped a nutmeg in his mouth before seeing a patient he suspected of having plague.

Maybe Culpeper-

A distant pounding broke her concentration, and she marked her place and went through into the shop. Through the window glass she could make out the flicker of a link torch's flames, then the pounding came again, rattling the front door on its hinges.

"Mr Bonnick isn't here," she shouted, unwilling to open the door this late, especially as Hannah had gone out to visit a friend and she was on her own. "You had better find another apothecary. Bucklersbury is just around the corner. There are several there-"

"Mrs Bonnick?" The thick door muffled the man's voice. "I'm servant to Richard Hale - the draper in Bearbinder Lane . I bring a message."

Her father was meant to be dining with Hale. Heart thumping, she unbolted the door and opened it. "What is it? Has my father been taken ill?"

The servant shook his head and held the torch clear of her, though she could still feel its heat. "My master's sick. He took ill during dinner. Mr Bonnick requests that you come with me and bring his instrument case. And make haste," he added.

"Oh."

The case in question was on the floor next to the pestle and mortar. It contained a complete set of Father's medical instruments, plus lozenges and phials of the more common juleps, and he always took it with him when visiting patients. Phebe donned her cloak, grabbed it by its handle, and locked the door behind her.

"Lead on."

At once, Hale's servant set off along Walbrook, his torch raised high. It was fortunate it was a short walk, thought Phebe, as she struggled to keep within the circle of light and avoid stepping in anything horrid. Fortunate too, that she had an escort - London after dark was not for the fainthearted; footpads were common, and linkboys had been known to lead their unwitting followers into danger.

He turned right then left into Bearbinder Lane , and halted outside the house of her father's old friend. The front door opened at his knock, and a worried maid ushered Phebe into a cramped, candlelit hall. The servant stayed outside to extinguish the torch.

"They're upstairs, madam," said the maid. "In the master's bedchamber. Shall I take your cloak?"

Phebe shook her head. "My father said to make haste. Up these?" She indicated the flight of stairs, and at the maid's nod hurried up them. On the landing, she paused then she saw light spilling from an open bedchamber door.

Her father was leaning over a figure lying supine on the bed. At her entrance, he straightened, his frown easing. "Phebe."

"Your case, father." The room felt oppressively hot, and as she hurried to his side she saw that the windows were closed and a fire was burning in the grate. "How fares your friend?"

"Not good." He took the case from her and rummaged inside.

She regarded the unconscious man with a frown. Mr Hale had been well named, but an ailing stranger had replaced the man she had last seen at Christmas sharing a cup of Canary wine and light-hearted gossip with her father. She had never seen him without his wig before, or with his doublet and shirt unbuttoned, and she felt as though she were intruding. But an apothecary must set aside his qualms if he was to be of use, so she banished those thoughts at once.

"We were dining when he complained of a headache and nausea," said her father. "I thought it was a stomach upset at first, but his pulse was rapid and he developed a fever." He rested the back of his hand against Hale's forehead and shook his head in bafflement. "I stoked up the fire to sweat it from him. But he lost consciousness a few minutes ago."

"No sign of buboes?" said Phebe, her research for Nan fresh in her mind. Though there had been no cases of plague yet in the City, Father had taught her to overlook nothing.

He nodded approval. "My thoughts have been running along those lines too. No, none in either his groin or his armpits." He sniffed the contents of a phial, replaced its stopper, and reached for another.

"No cough?" It might be the version that affected the lungs.

He shook his head.

"Some other malady then." Phebe frowned. "The great pox?"

"Some of his symptoms are similar. But they're also similar to cat scratch fever. It's the uncharacteristic speed and virulence with which this has taken hold-" With a grunt of impatience he shoved his case to one side. "This is beyond my competence. Did Hale's servant accompany you?"

Phebe nodded. "He's downstairs."

"Good. Then tell him to fetch Hodges. And quickly."

She went to the head of the stairs and called down her father's instructions. The servant, peering up at her, knew of the physician's house in Red Lion Yard and agreed to set off at once.

Once the front door had closed behind him, she rejoined her father. He was examining one of Hale's hands with a worried frown. "Come no closer, Phebe."

"What is it?" She halted a yard from him.

"An unwelcome discovery." He indicated his friend's fingertips. "Do you see the growing discoloration?"

It was hard to tell in the candlelight, but they looked darker than they had. Hale was bleeding beneath the skin, the result a dark, spreading bruise, purple, almost black in colour. Her gorge rose and she swallowed. No doubt his toes were darkening too. "Then it is the plague?" She had only raised the possibility out of a sense of thoroughness. If it had escaped the confines of St Giles in the Fields and Covent Garden and entered the City itself-

"Aye. The deadlier form, for which there is no cure." His expression sombre, he held her gaze. "Leave this place now, Phebe."

"But-"

"You'll oblige me by obeying me for once," he snapped. "I must wait for Hodges, and then, if he confirms my diagnosis, we must report this to the Parish Clerk." He raised a hand to silence further protest. "There is nothing you can do, and no point in putting both our lives at risk."

He was angry not with her but with himself for putting her in harm's way, she realised, and she subsided. She had no wish to add to his burden. "As you wish. But will you do something for me in return, Father? Will you throw some flowers of sulphur on the fire? Or some rue?"

"To purify the air?" His smile returned. "Aye, Phebe. I will."

***

Thursday, 11th May 1665

Shouts wafted in through Nan 's open window. "If the authorities want the streets scoured, they should employ their own men to do it." "Aye. Or increase our wages." The twice-weekly sweeping of frontages had been deemed insufficient, so the Cock and Pie's serving wenches were scrubbing the pavement and exchanging complaints with those performing the same service for the Earl of Craven's grand residence opposite.

"Did you hear what I said?" Sophia put her hands on her hips.

Nan pulled her attention back. "Yes."

"Well? Will you come with me to Kent ?"

Normally if Sophia had something she wished to discuss, she waited until her husband had gone out, then summoned Nan to her house in King Street . Today, the rumours of plague had made her so skittish she had rushed over to Nan 's lodgings at what she usually considered an ungodly hour. Nan felt at a disadvantage. In spite of the hour, Sophia was her immaculate self; Nan , however, was not. She'd pulled on her dressing gown and finger-combed her hair, but she was finding it hard to stifle her yawns and concentrate - especially as she needed to use the chamberpot.

"I'm touched and grateful for your offer," she told her patroness, for once meaning it. "But I fear I cannot accept."

Sophia was itching to depart for the country, and would have left days ago had her husband not insisted on attending Sir Robert Hyde's funeral. "Why not? My parents are accompanying us." She rarely mentioned her lowborn relatives; that she had asked them to come with her showed the depths of her panic.

"'Love's Mistress' opens on Monday," said Nan . "If I let Killigrew down at the last minute, he'll flay me alive."

Sophia waved aside her objection. "Leave my cousin to me. He knows how much I care for you."

Nan hid a wince. "And you need not fear for my safety. I'm well supplied with preventatives. See?" She indicated the jars of Bonnick's London Treacle standing on the floor in a cool corner of her room. "Besides, your husband won't want me there."

Sophia tossed her head. "If we are discreet, William won't deny me. Besides, he plans to install his latest amour. " Her sniff made clear what she thought of that. She wrinkled her brow. "Surely the Playhouse must close soon anyway."

Nan conceded the point. "Aye. But not while the King and his court remain in residence."

"Which cannot be for much longer."

True. In fact the playhouse's possible closure had become a frequent topic of conversation. Already, there had been a noticeable dent in ticket sales. Nothing that need concern them as yet but.... Fear of the plague, if not the contagion itself, was spiriting away the wealthiest of their regulars - those who, like the Hamiltons, could afford to transport themselves and their belongings to the country and had no qualms about ordering their servants to guard the houses left vacant.

Phebe had no intention of leaving London, in spite of her recent experience - the death of her father's friend had shaken her, but neither she nor her father had taken any harm from it, thank heavens. Apothecaries would be needed to help the sick and dying, she had explained, and Nan found the taste of her own medicine bitter. For hadn't Phebe entreated her to leave the Cock and Pie for her own safety, and hadn't she refused? But Nan 's acting skills would be of little use in the approaching crisis.

"If you love me, you will come," said Sophia, pacing.

Love? Surely she does not expect that. Nan thought for a moment. "I'll come when the Playhouse closes." It might never come to it, after all. The plague might burn itself out, and all be as it was. I certainly hope so.

Sophia studied Nan 's face and seemed satisfied by what she found. "In that case let us say our farewells, for I've much to do before I depart. And when you are ready to join me, send word." She inclined her face for a kiss, and as it was the price of her freedom, Nan gave it willingly enough.

When her patroness had vanished down the stairwell, her manner regal, as if leaving a court banquet, Nan returned to her room with a feeling of relief. After she'd used the chamberpot and washed her hands, she poured herself some ale from the barrel and tore off a heel of bread. She carried her breakfast to her stool, and ate it to the accompaniment of the serving wenches' continuing grumbles, but her thoughts were elsewhere.

Once the Playhouse closed, her sole compelling reason to stay in London was Phebe. Remaining at the Cock and Pie would be convenient, though. And would fleeing really lessen the risk? Some might carry the contagion with them. Indeed, Sophia and her family might not be as safe in Kent as they thought-

A knock on the door cut short her reverie. "Yes?" she called.

"It's Denholm, Mrs Shelton," came the familiar growl of her landlord. "Here for the rent."

She had forgotten it was rent day. "One moment." She retrieved the coins she had hoarded from under the mattress, and opened the door. Denholm's face was flushed, but he had just climbed two flights of stairs. "Here. I have it ready."

"Thankee." He accepted the coins, licked the end of his pencil stub, and put a mark beside her name in his book. "Wish everyone paid up as promptly. A tenant in my Maypole Lane house has done a midnight flit." His expression soured. "If he thinks I won't pursue him for the debt, he can think again."

Nan frowned. "What do you make of all this talk of plague? Do you intend to leave London too?"

He shook his head. "My business is here, Mrs Shelton. Can't afford to travel, in any case. Besides-" he gave a fatalistic shrug, "-it makes little difference if the Destroying Angel has your scent."

With that cheerful thought, he took his leave of her, and seconds later she heard him knocking on Nell's door.

***

Tuesday, 6th June 1665

Phebe tuned out the singing coming from the kitchen - it was Hannah's afternoon to scour the pewter - and squared the stack of booklets on the counter.

Certain Necessary Directions As Well For The Cure Of The Plague As For The Prevention Of Infection was selling well. The King had commissioned it himself from the College of Physicians - something of a concession, given the chief preoccupation of those at court was still war with the Dutch. It was a shame, therefore, that the densely printed, cobbled-together collection of remedies, instructions, and dubious suggestions was as rushed and rambling as its title. And from the grumbling commentary coming from the other room, where Father was going through it, jotting down anything useful, he shared her lack of confidence. At least the booklet cautioned against bleeding, purging, and vomiting those with plague, as it was her father's belief such practices served only to weaken those who were already dangerously frail.

The jingle of the bell above the shop door announced the arrival of a customer. He was glad to get out of the heat but would have felt much cooler minus his periwig. Men and their foolish fashions. She listened to his concerns about the plague, and he departed looking a little easier and clutching a copy of the new booklet, a packet of tobacco, and a jar of London Treacle.

Phebe dropped the money he had given her into the till drawer and wondered whether she should place a bowl of vinegar on the counter. But soaking coins was a messy, smelly business and it was by no means certain that plague spread from hand to hand.

The bell jingled again, and she looked up and found Nan standing in the doorway. A broad-brimmed hat had protected her from the fierce sun, but the walk had brought a flush to her face and dampened her dress with sweat.

Gladness washed over Phebe, and she came out from behind the counter. "I wasn't expecting to see you today." But wasn't Nan usually onstage at this hour? "Shouldn't you be-"

"They've closed the Playhouse until further notice." Nan took Phebe's hands in hers. "By order of the Lord Chamberlain."

Phebe gaped at her in dismay. "Because of the plague?"

"Aye." Nan 's gaze swept the deserted shop and returned to Phebe's face, eyebrows raised. "Your father?"

"He'll be in the other room for a while. Did you want to speak privately?"

Nan nodded and indicated the bench by the window. They crossed to it and sat down. "We arrived for rehearsal this morning to find the playhouse locked up and a notice nailed to the door."

"Oh Nan . I'm sorry. What are you going to do?" They had been expecting this, but still-

Nan gave a helpless shrug. "What can I do? Without a wage, I can no longer pay for my room at the Cock and Pie. Killigrew is staying on in London but Nell and Hart have already departed for Oxford . Hart believes Charles and his court will end up there, and the King will require players to entertain him."

"Then must you leave for Oxford too?" Phebe felt a stab of dismay, then was angry at herself for being selfish. Of course Nan must go.

Nan sighed and shook her head. "Just because Hart believes it doesn't make it so. And until the King arrives, the rent in Oxford would be just as difficult to find."

"Can't you borrow-" She saw Nan 's expression and stopped. "Then where will you go? Your aunt and uncle's tavern in Madeley?"

Nan gave her a sheepish look. "Sophia has invited me to stay with her in Kent ."

Phebe bit back her exclamation. The thought of Nan living with that woman for any length of time perturbed her. "You could stay here," she said, the words surprising her as much as they did Nan .

"Here?" Nan surveyed the shop once more. "With you and your father?"

It was not impossible, surely? "If I explain to him the difficulties you face-"

A squeeze of her hand stopped her. "Hush," said Nan , but she was smiling. "Your offer means more to me than I can say. But we both know my staying here would be impractical. Your father will need your help, day and night, and I would only get in the way."

"You could...." Could what? Share Phebe's bedchamber? Or Hannah's garret, perhaps? She could imagine the cookmaid's reaction to that .

The singing from the kitchen paused then started up once more, and Nan cocked her head and listened, lips twitching with amusement.

"Hannah says it helps the scouring go better," explained Phebe. She sighed. "At least you will be safe at Sophia's."

Nan nodded. "I am more concerned for your health. Apothecaries by their nature come into contact with the plague much more than the rest of us."

Remembering poor Mr Hale's death, Phebe grimaced and did not deny it.

The shop door opened again to admit a young woman, looking elegant and unflustered beneath the latest in fringed parasols. With a murmur of apology, Phebe rose and went to serve her. She wanted something to settle her husband's digestion and departed with a parcel under her arm. Belatedly Phebe noticed that the grumbling commentary from the dining room had ceased and she knew her time alone with Nan was running out.

"Are you are expecting your father to return?" Nan must have followed Phebe's glance. She rose from the bench and came to the counter. "Then I'll take my leave. I came to give you warning of my departure and to ask if we could spend an hour or two together before I go."

"I'd like that," said Phebe, already missing the excitement and colour Nan added to her life.

"Good. Sophia doesn't know the Playhouse has closed yet, and won't learn of it until I write to her, all being well. I know you're busier than ever, so I'll leave it to you to choose a time and place. I can extend my stay for a fortnight, three weeks at a pinch, but after that my savings will have run out. The plague orders have closed many of our favourite haunts, but in any case I'd like us to spend our time together alone and uninterrupted." She glanced out at the sunlit street. "Somewhere cool." She turned back and gave Phebe a warm smile. "Can you think of somewhere suitable?"

Alone and uninterrupted? What does she intend? Several intriguing possibilities flashed through Phebe's head and her stomach fluttered in a way it never had with Philip Hubland. "I'll set my mind to the task and let you know."

"Thank you," said Nan . And with a last press of the hand, she was gone.

***

Tuesday, 20th June 1665.

Nan plodded back from St Paul 's Covent Garden in a sour mood. Today was a national day of thanksgiving for the Battle of Lowestoft, but instead of using the special morning service to celebrate the fleet's victory over the Dutch, the rector had decided to scold those sitting in his pews. In a thundering sermon, he had pronounced the plague 'God's just punishment' on sinners, and though the contents of the collection plate were to be distributed to households suffering from the plague - there were now several in the Piazza and also in King Street (Sophia had been wise to leave) - that did little to balance the scales, in Nan 's opinion.

His sentiments might have been a little easier to swallow had the rector himself expressed them, but the Reverend Patrick had fled. To see his aged parents in Northamptonshire and make use of the local health spa there, supposedly. But the timing was suspiciously convenient. Rats leaving a sinking ship . She grimaced. And I will soon be joining them. But what choice did she have now the Playhouse was closed?

At the Cock and Pie, she flopped back on her bed and stared at the ceiling, her arms outflung. Without an occupation, and with Kynaston and Beck both absent from London , she was finding it hard to keep herself amused. At least tomorrow there was her picnic with Phebe to look forward to. God willing. Mr Bonnick's sudden need of his daughter's assistance with a critically ill patient had thwarted their previous attempt to meet.

The royal parks were closed, so they were taking a boat upstream to Barn Elms. The dappled shade there would provide welcome respite from this heat, and they could stroll and picnic on the riverbank. Bidding Phebe farewell is a good excuse to ask for a kiss. I wonder if those lips are as soft as I imagine? She felt a thrill of anticipation, though it saddened her that afterwards she would have to leave the young woman she had grown so fond of. Sophia will be far less congenial company. But with the plague's continuing advance - even L'Estrange's Intelligencer , which downplayed news showing the authorities in a bad light, was reporting the growing number of cases - the time had come to leave London .

She cooled her feet in a bowl of water and was contemplating going in search of dinner when she heard heavy footsteps on the landing followed by a knocking on what had formerly been Nell's door. The knocking became pounding, then stopped altogether and was replaced by a murmur of men's voices.

The loud, splintering crash that followed startled Nan , and, leaving a trail of wet footprints, she went to investigate. The door to the room opposite hers was hanging off its hinges, but the broad backs of two men blocked her view of the interior. She could just see the end of the bed, though. Resting on it was a pair of naked, motionless feet.

One of the men shifted his weight, in the process revealing more of the owner of the feet - even from this distance it was obvious he was dead. "It's as I feared," growled the man, tugging at his earlobe, and Nan realised it was Denholm. "Dead as a doornail."

"Shall I fetch the Searcher?" asked his colleague.

With a start, the landlord realised Nan was standing behind them. "Mrs Shelton?" He moved to block her view. "Something I can do for you?"

"What did he die of?" There was a blue tinge to the dead man's toes she didn't like the look of, and a feeling of unease had taken up residence in the pit of her stomach.

"Heart, most likely." Denholm's expression was bland. "When I saw him last, he was having trouble catching his breath. Should have rented a room on the ground floor." He glanced at his colleague. "What are you waiting for?"

While the other man hurried away, Denholm arched an eyebrow at Nan . "Something else?"

She shook her head, and returned to her own room, all thoughts of dinner forgotten. By sending for the Searcher, Denholm had revealed he shared her suspicions it was plague that had struck down the unfortunate occupant of the room opposite. Luckily, Nan had caught wind of the case well before the Parish Clerk, and by the time he deemed it was indeed plague and instructed a constable to shut up the Cock and Pie, she should be well clear of the place. No time to lose!

It took her no more than five minutes to pull on her stockings and shoes, cram a few possessions into a travel bag, and emerge onto the landing again. An old woman in a shawl was limping towards her, the white wand that denoted a Searcher of the Dead clutched in one gnarled fist. Searchers were usually elderly, female, and illiterate - they were the only ones desperate enough to take on such a hazardous task. The woman's rheumy-eyed glance followed Nan, as Nan hurried past her and down the stairs.

Nana was about to emerge from the door at the bottom of the stairwell into the sunshine when a truncheon barred her way. "Where do you think you're going?" asked the constable wielding it.

Nan blinked at him. " Drury Lane . Let me pass."

"Not until the Searcher says it isn't plague." He took in her expression and continued in a kinder tone, "Orders, Madam. Sorry."

"What do you mean, orders?" Her heart hammered and she felt sick.

"What I said."

"The Searcher's supposed to inspect the body, determine the cause of death, and report it to the Parish Clerk. It's up to him to instruct the constable."

"Aye," he said, nodding. "Usually. But our Parish Clerk thinks it wiser to have a constable accompany the Searcher on her rounds and, if necessary, take action there and then." He shrugged. "Who am I to disagree?"

"But- "

Shuffling footsteps made her turn, and she saw the Searcher coming down the stairs, using her wand for support.

"That was quick," said the constable in surprise. "Well?"

"Plague," said the Searcher, her voice sepulchral. He nodded, and used his truncheon to force Nan to one side so the old woman could pass.

"Back inside with you, Madam," he told Nan . "The only thing coming out of this house is the corpse when the dead cart gets here."

A feeling of dread washed over her. "For the love of God-"

"Not even for Him, I'm afraid." He managed to sound both sympathetic and unyielding. "You aren't going anywhere. Not for forty days. See?"

Nan 's stomach dropped like a stone. She did see. Only too well. She had stayed too long in London and now must pay the price.

***

Wednesday, 21st June 1665

While Mr L'Estrange scrutinised the advert she'd handed him, Phebe scanned his office. Papers covered every surface, including the huge desk he was sitting behind. It looked as if a whirlwind had hit the cramped premises above Brome's bookshop, but presumably there was order to the publisher's chaos.

With a satisfied grunt, he set it to one side. I hope he doesn't lose it. "Everything seems to be in order. Will next Monday's Intelligencer suit you, Mrs Bonnick?"

"It will. Thank you." She counted out the coins into his outstretched palm.

The advertisement for Bonnick's Plague Preventatives and Remedies had been her father's idea. Phebe saw no need to attract more business - they were already finding it hard to keep up with demand, and she had said as much. "The rout to the country is a trickle at present," he explained, "but once it's in full flood, business will slacken fast." He had not needed to say that it would also slacken as their regulars died.

She closed the office door behind her and took the steps down to Ivy Lane . As she turned into Paternoster Row, hurried along it to Cheapside, and returned to Walbrook, her thoughts turned to more pleasant thoughts: this afternoon's picnic with Nan . She couldn't help feeling sad it was to be their last meeting before Nan left for Kent . With her. At the thought of Sophia Hamilton, a hiss emerged unbidden, and a passer-by glanced at Phebe in surprise. Cheeks warming, she quickened her step.

The shop was crowded with customers, so she donned her apron, and hurried to help her father at the counter. The deepening shadows under his eyes worried her. Last night he had sat by the bedside of yet another dying regular and come home despondent. She had upbraided him for risking his own health, but he had shrugged and said, "I give them comfort, Phebe, as our Lord would have us do."

More and more he was attending patients in their homes, dressing sores, taking pulses, and giving his opinion as to whether or not they had the plague, and if so, whether it was likely to prove fatal. Phebe kept half expecting Hodges to storm in, objecting that such activities were the purview of a physician not an apothecary. But Hodges was as overworked as they were and must find it convenient to turn a blind eye.

It was a full hour before the shop emptied of customers and he had the opportunity to speak to her. "While you were at L'Estrange's, a message came for you, Phebe. From Mrs Shelton."

"Oh?" She looked around for the letter but could see none.

"A verbal message." Father's gaze turned inwards and he recited as if from memory, "With the deepest regret, Mrs Shelton must inform you that unanticipated circumstances have made it impossible for her to keep her appointment. Please accept her fondest regards and her heartfelt wishes that God will keep you safe in these perilous times. She bids you farewell."

Farewell? A pang of disappointment pierced Phebe. "Has she gone to Kent already?"

"Her message said only what I've told you."

He would not meet her gaze, and she frowned. "Yet from your manner there is more. Tell me." She became impatient. "I have a right to know."

He sighed. "It will cause nothing but harm."

"Father!"

"You have your mother's stubbornness." He grimaced. "Admirable when treating a patient but-" Phebe stopped him with a glare. "Very well. But the rest of my intelligence comes from the messenger not the message."

"The rest?"

Eyes filling with sympathy, he rested his hand on her shoulder. "The reason your friend cannot keep her appointment, Phebe, is also the reason she could send no written word. Her lodgings have been shut up, with her inside them."

"Shut up?" repeated Phebe blankly.

He nodded. "The rooms above the Cock and Pie have been declared infected."

Infected. Her surroundings swam and she reached out a hand to steady herself. Father helped her to the bench and she sat down. After a moment her vision steadied.

"Your friend didn't say she is sick, Phebe." But the gravity of his expression as she leaned over her told her he thought it could not be long.

Shock and dismay overwhelmed her, and she fell into state of helpless confusion. Nan . Oh, Nan . But gradually her thought processes calmed and she knew what she must do. "I must go and see her."

"No," he barked. "Absolutely not. In fact I forbid it."

Phebe blinked up at him. " Forbid it?" Belatedly she saw the fear in her father's eyes.

"She's already bidden you farewell. And what good can you do her? It would be the height of foolishness to put yourself in harm's way too, and for no good reason."

"I can give her comfort." She stood up. "As Our Lord would have us do." His own words, thrown back at him, brought a flush to his cheeks, and she softened her tone. "I must see how matters stand for myself, Father. That's all there is to it."

As she draped her light summer cloak around her shoulders, he stepped between her and the door. She could tell he was considering bolting it, perhaps even restraining her in some way. "Please, Father. Don't try to stop me. If it were your friend at risk, wouldn't you want to know the truth?"

For a long moment he remained frozen, then to her relief and with a sigh he stepped to one side. "Much as it pains me, you're right. I won't stand in your way, Phebe. You're a grown woman now and must make your own decisions. But I entreat you one last time: please don't go."

"I must, Father. But thank you."

"Ha! You'll have little enough to thank me for if you fall sick." He managed a weak smile, which she returned. "Remember your training, Phebe. Take all precautions."

She reached for the door handle. "I will."

It was a long, hot walk to Drury Lane , and the sight that greeted Phebe provoked an exclamation of dismay and tightened her chest. On the pavement directly outside the Cock and Pie sat a watchman - a villainous-looking fellow with a broken nose and a scarred right cheek. And someone had nailed rough planks over all the ground floor windows, and chained the two doors closed, daubing on them in bright scarlet a cross and the words: God Have Mercy Upon Us.

So it's true. She halted a few paces from the watchman.

"Come to gawp, have you?" Her glare made him chuckle, transforming his appearance and making her revise her first opinion of him. "No need to get on your high horse. You won't be the first." He puffed his pipe. "Or the last."

Phebe stood her ground.

"Best not to linger," he said. "Place is infected, see?"

"My friend lodges here." She had met Nan several times at the door leading to the stairwell, though she had yet to see inside Nan 's room. A thought struck her - something Nan had said. "I don't understand. The lodging rooms on the two upper storeys have no access to the tavern. Why is it shut up too?"

"Noticed that, did you? Aye. The landlord was at pains to point that out. Said they don't shut up adjacent houses, so what's the difference? He and the constable came to an... accommodation." He rubbed his fingers and thumb together. "They let the landlord, serving wenches, and customers leave before shutting up the tavern."

Phebe grasped at the straw. "Then those upstairs...?"

"Weren't so lucky. At that time of day, most were fortunate to be abroad, but two were inside." He shrugged. "And still are."

Which was Nan 's room? It overlooked Drury Lane , she knew that much. It was also on the top floor. She studied each set of double windows in turn. Those on the top left had been cracked open to let in what breeze there was, and from one dangled a wicker basket on a rope. She took a guess and pointed at it. "Is that Mrs Shelton's room?"

His eyes filled with curiosity. "She this friend of yours?" Phebe didn't answer, and he turned his head to follow the direction of her finger. "Aye. That's hers. Want me to call her for you?"

Phebe nodded.

He stuck two fingers in his mouth and let out a shrill whistle that left her ears ringing.

One of the windows opened wide and a head poked out. "How many times must I tell you?" bellowed Nan . "I'm not some dog to be whistled to heel." Her eyes met Phebe's and she regarded her with dismay.

"Visitor for you," said the watchman, his gaze tracking between the two women.

"So I see." Nan looked as well as always, though at the moment rather cross. "Phebe! What on earth are you doing here?"

She stood beneath Nan 's window. "I wanted to see you."

"I sent the message so you would have no need to come." Nan sounded exasperated. "This isn't a Barn Elms picnic."

"Nice place, Barn Elms," murmured the watchman, who was listening to every word.

"It's not safe for you here!" said Nan .

Phebe studied her. "Are you sick?"

"Not yet. But the death occurred in the room directly opposite mine - not a cheering thought."

She remembered what Nan had told her. "Nell Gwyn's room?"

Nan nodded. "Thank God she went to Oxford ."

The tightness in Phebe's chest eased a little. "Oh, Nan . Why did you have to be one of those shut in?"

"Too slow to make my exit." Nan gave her a wry smile. "But all is not lost. I'm hoping I can persuade someone in higher authority to release me."

"Can they do that?" asked Phebe, surprised.

"If they've a mind to. How many of those at court do you see locked up?" The question was clearly rhetorical. "I've sent word to Sophia," Nan went on, her hands gripping the windowsill. "Mr Hamilton might be able to bring his influence to bear."

For once Phebe didn't resent Nan 's relationship with Sophia. "How long will that take?"

Nan shrugged. "Not long, I hope. I'm going mad with boredom. All I have for entertainment is a moth-eaten Bible someone left behind. Collier at least has his lute - if only the walls weren't paper thin."

"Collier?"

"The other tenant who's shut in. His room is next to mine, and he's keeping to it."

Phebe could help with the boredom. "I can bring you something to read."

"Once in, it can't come out again," said the watchman. "Not until the house is declared free of infection. And that won't be for another thirty-nine days."

"Thirty-nine days!" Phebe's hands curled into fists. "Do you have food and water, Nan ?"

Nan indicated the basket. "As long as the fee comes from my pocket, Graunt brings goods from the market and remedies from the apothecary in Russell Street ."

The watchman nodded. "I put them in the basket and she hoists them up."

"I can provide you with remedies too," reminded Phebe. "Do you need any more of my father's London Treacle?"

"Not yet. If I do, you'll be the first to hear of it." Nan smiled. "God willing, it won't come to that."

Graunt didn't look as confident about that as Nan did, Phebe noticed, but he kept his thoughts to himself so she did too. "What else can I do? Will you let me visit you?" It wasn't the same as going on a picnic together, but it was something.

Nan 's gaze became quizzical. "Does your father know you're here?"

Phebe nodded.

"Did he tell you not to come?"

She flushed, but nodded again.

"Then since you are determined to come, against all advice-" Nan let out a sigh, "-your company, whenever you can spare it, will be very welcome."

***

Wednesday, 5th July 1665

Will 3 o'clock never come? Church bells had replaced the sounds of drunken revelry and brawling - one of the hazards of living above a tavern - as the chief cause of Nan 's disturbed nights these days, and it struck her as ironic that she was longing to hear one strike the hour. If she hadn't already known that plague deaths were increasing - Phebe had access to the weekly Bills of Mortality and was keeping Nan abreast of their contents - the tolling of funeral bells long into the night would have alerted her. For a while, she had amused herself trying to calculate the distance and direction of each muffled peal and hence identify the church that was its source, but the novelty of the game had worn off, and she had soon returned to playing solitaire with a greasy pack of playing cards she'd found in another room.

Aside from the bells, the streets were quiet, sometime eerily so. And thanks to the beadle's activities yesterday, even the barking of dogs was now absent. Last week, he and three constables had marched up Drury Lane instructing householders to kill their cats and dogs and threatening dire consequences if they didn't. Yesterday they had returned to see if the order had been carried out, and had despatched on the spot two mangy cats and one wall-eyed dog unlucky enough to cross their path.

Nan missed the clamour and bustle of Londoners going about their everyday lives and businesses, but the streets were emptier by the day and the raucous cries of the rat catchers and street hawkers had fallen silent by decree. An occasional carriage still rumbled by, though, and the odd pedestrian. Once she had spied Sam Pepys, a playhouse regular, who often lurked near the tiring rooms to catch a glimpse of naked actresses - Nell and the Marshall sisters were his favourites - but was tolerated as a harmless pest. He had hurried up Drury Lane , crossing the road and himself when he saw that the Cock and Pie was shut up, and nosing in Craven's windows before hastening on his way.

Is it three yet? Chime, damn you. She put down her pen and leaned back in chair, her thoughts wry. She was wishing her life away, but since when had it been judged wrong to wish for the one bright spot in her day?

Phebe had taken to visiting her every afternoon on the stroke of 3, though 'visit' was perhaps too strong a word for a shouted conversation that any passing Tom, Dick or Harry could overhear. Her extraordinary kindness touched Nan deeply but also perturbed her, for she knew that Phebe was rushed off her feet helping her father with increasingly desperate customers. And I am adding to her burden.

A discordant plink pulled Nan from her ruminations. Still alive then, Collier?

More plinks followed as the Cock and Pie's other occupant tightened one lute peg and loosened another. He struck up a tune - one of Dowland's Airs - and moments later raised his tremulous voice in song. She had seen him only once. Bent on exploration, she had been passing his door when it jerked open, bringing them face to face. For a long frozen moment he had stared at her, wide-eyed, then he'd scuttled back inside and slammed the door in her face. She hadn't taken it personally - he could as easily infect her with plague as she him.

Collier's voice paused and repeated a phrase before continuing. At least he was keeping himself amused. That was the worst of being shut up. Stargazing from her window stretched Nan 's eyes, and running up and down the stairs to the front door helped ease legs itching for a walk, but when it came to expanding her mind, ah, that was a different matter. Fortunately, Phebe had given her a copy of Fletcher's Cromwell and, for lighter reading, last year's Poor Robin's Almanack. Nan had also taken to rereading her old parts and was becoming word perfect once more; it was a pity she had only the sparrows chirruping in the eaves for an audience. Today, tired of reading, she had even turned her hand to writing a play. But it was proving more difficult than she had thought, and had given her a new appreciation of Dryden's skills.

Surely the bell had struck three by now. Where was Phebe? Nan crossed to the window and leaned out.

"Mrs Shelton," called the watchman, glancing up. "Is all well?"

"As well as it can be, given that racket." She gestured to the room next door.

Graunt grinned. "Sounds as if he's killing a cat."

Nan grimaced. "Don't remind me."

Scanning Drury Lane as far as Maypole Lane , she frowned as the seconds passed and there was still no sign of Phebe. But at last she spied a familiar figure carrying a basket in the distance. To add to her relief, Collier's song chose that moment to end and blessed silence fell.

Phebe halted below Nan's window, putting Nan in mind of a scene from Romeo and Juliet. She quelled the urge to strike a pose and call down, "O Romeo, Romeo, wherefore art thou Romeo?" and schooled herself to patience while Phebe conversed with Graunt. From Phebe's flushed cheeks and pauses for breath, she had been hurrying. At last, though, she turned her attention to Nan .

"Are you well, Nan ?" Phebe shaded her eyes and peered up at her.

Nan nodded. "And you?"

"Aye. And I bring good news. The authorities have announced new plague orders. The period of shutting up is reduced to 28 days."

"So I have only another-" Nan counted on her fingers. "-13 days in which to find my own amusement? That is good news." Phebe looked crestfallen, and Nan gave herself a mental kick. "Sorry. I'm a little out of humour. It's just as well you are here to shake me out of it."

Phebe waved her apology aside. "You may find yourself at liberty before then, if your letter to Sophia bears fruit." She cocked her head. "Have you had any reply?"

Nan shook her head. It was three days since she had sent her request for aid and in her darker moments she wondered if Mr Hamilton had seen this as an opportunity, simply by inaction, to take revenge on his wife's lover.

Phebe grimaced. "Perhaps the delay is with those in authority."

"Perhaps." Nan twirled the signet ring around her little finger - when it had first come into her possession, she had worn it on her middle finger, but she had since grown into it. The R of the reversed CR had a speck of dirt in it, and she eased it out with her fingernail. She would be sorry to let the ring go, but if Sophia's husband did not secure her release soon, she must take matters into her own hands.

She propped her elbows on the windowsill and rested her chin in her palms. "Aphra came to see me this morning, full of excitement. She's off to the Continent."

"Oh," said Phebe, intrigued. "That mysterious project for Killigrew?"

Nan nodded. She hoped Aphra would not come to any harm during her travels. It had been kind of her, before she left, to bring Nan news of the rest of the King's Company's comings and goings. "She told me most of our friends have left London or are planning to. And several more are bound for Oxford . But Killigrew himself is staying."

Phebe nodded. "It's the same in Walbrook. Mr Juxon has gone, but our immediate neighbours are staying - they can't afford a watchman." She frowned. "How can it be right to pay someone to risk the plague on your behalf, Nan ?" Nan didn't answer, so she went on, "Hannah is staying too - she insists she has nowhere else to go and that my father and I need looking after."

"I'm glad of that for your sake," said Nan . "You've quite enough on your plate already." She frowned. "I hope you're remembering to mind your own health, Phebe. All this rushing around. And that illness of yours last year-"

"May stand me in good stead. Some physicians are of the opinion that suffering from a mild affliction early may prevent a more severe affliction later." She saw Nan 's scepticism, and gave a shrug, then smiled.

Nan hoped it was true. "Nevertheless. After all, who else would visit me each afternoon?" She smiled to take the edge off her words.

"I am taking precautions, Nan ," said Phebe, her expression earnest. "Please don't be concerned." She spoke to Graunt for a moment, then rummaged in her basket and produced a stoppered, earthenware jar and something wrapped in muslin. "I've brought you more London Treacle. And a small ham."

"That's kind. Thank you." The fresh supplies would eke out Nan 's dwindling pile of coins.

"Send down your basket," shouted Graunt.

The dangling wicker basket was tethered to a table leg. Nan untied the knot and paid out the cord, lowering the basket in fits and starts until it was level with his head.

He lobbed the ham and pot into it. "Haul away."

Shading her eyes with one hand, Phebe watched it ascend. "Is there anything else you need?"

Just that reply from Sophia. Nan took custody of the basket. "This will do very well."

"Good. Then I fear I must go, as Father has need of me. But I'll return tomorrow, Nan , never fear."

She knew she should tell Phebe not to come but could not bring herself to do so. "I'll be here," she said, instead. "God bless you for your continuing kindness and keep you safe."

"And you," called Phebe. Then with a smile and a wave, she hurried back the way she'd come.

She has a two-mile walk to Walbrook, thought Nan , watching her go with a pang. Once home, she would be rushed off her feet preparing and dispensing medicines-

"Hey!" Graunt's hail brought her back to herself, and she saw she had sunk her fingertips into the ham. "Everything all right?"

"What do you think?" As if on cue, Collier's lute-playing resumed and she let out a snarl of frustration.

"No need to bite my head off," said the watchman, but his tone was mild - he must be aware by now what Phebe meant to Nan . He resumed his seat on the pavement and relit his pipe.

"Sorry." Nan unloaded the basket and carried her booty to the table, then retied the knot and rehung the basket. But her mind was distracted, and she wrote no more of the play she had begun.

Two hours had crawled past before Graunt's shout drew her to the window once more. A post boy was walking away.

"Letter for you." He waved it at her.

Mouth dry, she sent down the basket and moments later had cracked open the letter's seal. As she read the contents of Sophia's reply, disbelief turned to dismay to humiliated betrayal. Sophia's tone was cold enough to freeze the Thames . How dare Nan write to her from an infected house? To put her at risk, more importantly to put her children at risk, was insupportable. Had Nan no consideration for anyone other than herself? Sophia sympathised with her plight, any Christian would, but by not leaving London when she had the opportunity Nan had brought it upon herself. Any notion of her coming to Kent was out of the question now - Nan must disabuse herself of it at once. As for asking her husband to bring influence to bear on those in authority, Sophia would not countenance such a thing. The plague orders were there for a good reason, and no exception to them could be made. Not even for Nan .

Nan crumpled up the letter and threw it across the room. But as she paced and got her anger under control, more complex emotions surfaced. You're hurt because someone you wished would stop loving you has finally done just that, she was forced to acknowledge with a bleak smile.

Sophia's betrayal was inconvenient to say the least, but understandable. She was terrified, and had dropped the source of that terror like a hot coal. The contrast of her actions with Phebe's could not be starker - Phebe had not deserted Nan in her hour of need.

So be it. Nan took a breath and let it out. I've wasted too much time. Now is the time to take action of my own.

She returned to the window. Below, in the gathering twilight, Graunt was strolling up and down, waiting for the night watchman's arrival. She was glad she had caught him before the shift change - the other man was a dour Scotsman and far less amenable. "Graunt," she called.

Halting, he looked up. "What is it?"

Nan removed the ring and held it up. "Will you convey this to Whitehall , to the King himself, with a message?" Even if Charles didn't recognise it at once as his, the initials it bore should provoke his curiosity.

The watchman scratched the scar on his cheek. "Nothing can issue from inside an infected house. You know that."

She hadn't thought of that, and fear the rule might thwart her made her stomach clench and turned her mind blank. After a moment, her thought processes resumed. "What if I send it down in a pot of vinegar, as I do the coins for my purchases?" If it wasn't immersed for long, the ring should come to no harm.

Graunt thought for a moment, then nodded.

Relief made her head swim. "Wait there."

Not wanting the vinegar to slop over the pot's rim, Nan lowered the basket carefully, then watched as Graunt extracted the ring from it and shook off the droplets. In the distance, the night watchman appeared and trudged towards the Cock and Pie.

"What's your message?" Graunt slid the ring onto his own finger.

Nan chose her words with care. "Tell his Majesty: 'One who helped you in Madeley and received this as a token of your royal favour humbly begs your urgent assistance'. Then supply my name and address."

"You helped the King?" he said, startled.

She shrugged. "It was many years ago." She wondered if the watchman was the type to steal a silver ring for himself, and searched his face. That flattened nose, that scar on his cheek.... He looked like a villain, but she thought he was honest. If she was wrong.... "My fate lies in your hands, Graunt. Will you do this for me?"

He nodded at her, his face sombre. "You may rely on me."

She hoped he meant it.

The night watchman arrived then, and, after an exchange of greetings, Graunt hurried away, taking Nan 's hopes of freedom with him. Her fingertips still reeking of vinegar, she retreated inside. But even though it was a hot night, she could not seem to shake off the chill of Sophia's cruel words.

An hour later, she was shivering so badly her teeth were chattering, and it dawned on her that this chill was nothing to do with the contents of the letter. I have it! she thought, as somewhere in the distance church bells began once more to toll. A pang of terror pierced her. I have the plague.

***

CONTINUED IN PART 2