Copyright © 2015 by Barbara Davies.
Warnings - See part 1.
(Email: firstname.lastname@example.org )
Thursday, 6th July 1665
Funeral bells tolled in the distance as Phebe toiled up Drury Lane , the brim of her hat pulled down against the sun's glare. If only this heat would ease a little.
She wondered what mood she would find Nan in this afternoon. There were moments when the actress's smiling mask slipped and Phebe glimpsed the fear and frustration behind it. Phebe felt almost as helpless, but there was little she could do except take Nan 's mind off her plight for awhile. Not for the first time, she wished Nan lived closer to Walbrook.
Phebe and her father were dealing with as many as fifty patients a day now, and sometimes they were abroad until 9pm. It left little time for afternoon visits, but she managed by combining them with other errands and deliveries. Today she had purchased herbs and spices from their preferred Cheapside merchant and in the process learned to her dismay that he was departing for safer climes. As are so many.
The Cock and Pie came into view and Phebe's anxiety eased as she saw everything appeared as usual. Nan 's window stood slightly ajar, the wicker basket dangling from its rope, and Graunt sat smoking in a shady spot below.
As she approached, the faint plink of a lute wafted down, and the watchman got to his feet. "Afternoon, Mrs Bonnick."
She halted next to him, put down the heavy basket with relief, and fanned her face with one hand. "Good afternoon." Something about his expression made her uneasy. "Has something happened?"
"It may be nothing." He looked sheepish. "I've been trying since this morning to give her news of the errand she sent me on. But she won't answer my hail."
Her ignorance seemed to surprise Graunt. He set his pipe to one side and pulled something from his pocket. She recognised the signet ring Nan wore on her right hand and often toyed with. "I was to take this to Whitehall . To the King."
He nodded and stuffed it back into his pocket. "But I was too late. Charles and his cronies have gone to Hampton Court by boat."
"I'm surprised they stayed this long," she said absently. What could Nan want with the King?
"It was after that letter came that she decided upon it," he said round the stem of his pipe.
Phebe pricked up her ears. "Was it from Mrs Hamilton?" He shrugged to indicate his ignorance. But she had missed something much more important.... "What was that about Nan not answering your hail?"
"She must have taken too much ale and is sleeping it off." He forced a smile.
That didn't sound like Nan . Worried now, Phebe shaded her eyes and regarded the window. "She could be taking her exercise," she mused. "She uses the stairs to stretch her legs. Call her again."
Graunt's glance was doubtful, but he said, "As you wish," and cupped his hands around his mouth. "Mrs Shelton," he bellowed. "Mrs Bonnick is here to see you. Will you speak with her?"
Usually, within seconds, one of the double windows creaked open to reveal a familiar smiling face. Nan would enquire after Phebe's health and that of her father, and they would fall into easy, if a little self-conscious conversation. Today brought no such result.
Phebe refused to heed the doom-laden inner voice whispering: She's succumbed to the plague . It must be something else. The ham she had brought Nan had proved bad and she had the bellyache. Or... "If she's fallen and injured herself, she could be lying insensible on the other side of that door." Phebe gestured at the padlock then at the keys hanging from his belt. "You'd better open it."
At once, his face went blank. "No one in or out, except by order of the emergency health committee," he said, quoting the plague regulations.
"But -" The lute music paused before starting up again, and she had an idea. "Mr Collier."
"Should have thought of him before!" muttered Graunt, annoyed with himself. Once more he cupped his hands but this time the target of his bellow was the top floor's other set of double windows. "Mr Collier. I'd have words with you."
Seconds passed, then a window creaked wide and a wigless head poked out. "What do you want?" shouted Collier. "Have I asked you to fetch me anything? No."
The watchman waved him to silence. "Mrs Shelton. Is she well?"
"How in blazes should I know?"
"You might have heard her. Moving around."
Collier shook his head. "I've been playing my lute." He gave his unshaven jaw a thoughtful scratch. "I'll need new strings for it soon."
"Graunt-" said Phebe.
The watchman hushed her. "Open your door and look out, Mr Collier. Tell us what you see."
The head acquired a mutinous set to it. "If she has the plague, that's her concern. I'm staying put."
"If you keep your distance you should be in no danger," shouted Phebe.
Collier's lip curled. "So you say."
Graunt had been deep in thought; now he snapped his fingers. "You're wrong, Mr Collier," he shouted up. "About it being her concern. If Mrs Shelton dies of plague, your quarantine restarts from the beginning."
"What?" Outrage made Collier's face flush.
"Thought that would hit him where it hurts," murmured Graunt, with a satisfied grin. "Rules is rules," he told Collier with a shrug.
"Devil take your rules!"
Phebe frowned. If threats weren't working.... "Tell him if he helps us I'll buy him a new set of lute string."
Graunt's eyebrows rose. "Bribery, is it?" But he relayed her message.
For a moment Collier seemed tempted, and Phebe allowed herself to hope. Then he shook his head. "Risk your own health not mine." With that, he retreated from sight.
"Scurvy, disobliging fellow," said Graunt. "In that case, the rules are clear." He shot her a look of apology. "I must send for a physician."
She regarded him with dismay. The College of Physicians had closed its doors and the majority of its members had fled. The few that remained, including Hodges, were rushed off their feet, and only that morning Father had complained that, as the average wait was now six hours, desperate patients were applying to him instead. Six hours! During which time Nan could be lying in agony, or, depending on her injuries, on the point of death. " Nan can't wait that long!"
"I'd like to help you," said Graunt, "but my hands are tied."
Why must the plague orders be so inflexible? Phebe's thoughts whirled. What was it Graunt has said? No one in or out, except by order of the emergency health committee. The committee permitted physicians, chirurgeons, searchers and, God forbid, buriers of the dead to enter infected houses. But with physicians so busy and people seeking out apothecaries instead- An idea took root.
"If you were to send for a physician, and one were unavailable, might an apothecary be sent in his stead?"
"He might," said Graunt, his tone grudging.
"Suppose I were that apothecary."
" It's not such a stretch, surely? I've been apprenticed for four years, and I know the signs of plague as well as my father does. And I have prophylactics." Phebe indicated her basket, in which she had taken to carrying a couple of nutmegs and some of Father's special lozenges.
"No." Graunt gave his head a furious shake. "If I were to allow you inside, even for a moment...." The fact that he was entertaining the notion gave her hope, but she didn't let on. "Your father would not thank me. Nor would Mrs Shelton."
"What they think is beside the point." She managed to control her voice, but inside she was quaking. In truth the last thing she wanted was to put herself in harm's way, but Nan needed her, so what choice was there? "Whether to risk my health or not is my decision. And if I spy signs of plague, be assured I'll make my exit at once."
For what seemed an eternity they stared at one another, and she saw genuine concern in the watchman's eyes. The crease between his brows deepened and she held her breath and sent up a silent prayer. At last, he shook his head, but this time not in refusal but in sorrow. As his hands went to the keys at his belt, she let out her breath in a whoosh of relief.
"Lord save me from mule-headed women," he muttered. "And keep word of this from reaching the Examiner."
It had not occurred to her that he risked losing his job. "He'll not hear it from me. I give you my oath on it. Oh thank you, thank you, Mr Graunt. Nan will thank you too. Bless you for being a good Christian."
"Don't know about that." Still muttering, he inserted the key into the massive padlock and turned it. Seconds later, with a series of loud clanks, the heavy chains fell away, leaving the door to the Cock and Pie's stairwell unbarred.
As he lifted the latch and heaved it open, its screech of disuse made her wince. Phebe took stock. Her stomach was full from a late lunch - a point in her favour - but apprehension had made her heart race and her breathing quicken, which might lay her open to the plague. Taking a moment to regulate her breathing, she selected the largest of the nutmegs from her basket and popped it in her mouth.
"Remember," said Graunt. "Stay no longer than you must." He stood to one side. "God keep you safe."
With a tense smile and a nod of thanks, Phebe stepped across the threshold.
The air in the stairwell was stale and stifling, and it occurred to her that the plague might be lurking in a grain of dust, waiting to be inhaled. For a moment she felt sick with fear and she took herself to task. But things would be so much easier if we knew how it spreads. While her eyes adjusted to the gloom, she took in her surroundings. It was the first time she had ventured past the entrance to Nan 's lodgings and curiosity warred with a wish it were under better circumstances.
"Can you see her?" came Graunt's voice.
"Not yet," she mumbled around the nutmeg. At least Nan wasn't lying on the other side of the door, badly injured, as she had feared.
Hand pressed against the wall for support, Phebe ascended the narrow stairs. Someone was playing a lute, the music muffled by floorboards and distance. Collier. Anxiety was threatening to quicken her breathing again, and the nutmeg didn't help - it made swallowing awkward - so she counted each step, and hoped the distraction would keep her panic at bay.
There was no sign of Nan on the first landing, and the four rooms leading off it were all deserted, their contents arrayed in as orderly or disorderly a manner as their owners had left them in when they departed unaware they would be unable to return. She took a moment to regroup, then started up the second flight of stairs. It too was deserted, as was its landing. And there were no more stairs to climb, though a trapdoor in the high ceiling beams, accessible only by ladder, indicated the presence of a loft. The lute music was much louder now.
Of the four doors leading from this landing, one was hanging off its hinges and she remembered what Nan had told her of the landlord breaking down the door. That must be Nell's room, where the plague death occurred. Grateful for the nutmeg, she gave it a wide berth and turned her attention to the other room on that side. Empty. Which left the two rooms overlooking Drury Lane , whose doors were both closed.
The music had identified which room was Collier's. So, stifling her resentment that he had forced her to undergo this ordeal, she turned her attention to the other door. As she had found no sign of Nan elsewhere, she must be still in her room. But if so, why hadn't she answered Graunt's hail?
Forcing herself to remain calm, Phebe put down her basket and added her hat to it, then studied the sunlight seeping beneath Nan 's door. Nothing blocked the light, even momentarily, but that meant only that Nan was stationary. Sitting in her chair or lying on her bed perhaps.
Phebe rapped her knuckles on the door twice, then pressed her ear to the wood and held her breath. There was no sound of movement from within. Nothing except the chirruping of sparrows in the eaves. She had feared it might come to this. Very well. Gathering her courage, she reached for the handle and turned it.
Relief that the door was unbolted proved short-lived. It had opened barely four inches before something blocked its progress. But by leaning her whole weight against it, she was able to force it a little wider - enough to get her head through the gap and see what was preventing it from opening.
Nan was lying supine on the floor, a noxious pool of vomit beside her head, and Phebe gazed down at her in shocked horror. Too late. Then she registered the flushed cheeks and ragged breathing, and felt a rush of relief so intense it made her giddy. Perhaps not quite.
Striving to adopt the professional detachment her father always adopted when visiting a patient, she squeezed through the gap - her dress caught on something and tore, but she ignored it. She knelt next to Nan, careful to avoid the vomit, and brushed the hair off Nan 's face, then held the back of her hand to her forehead. At her touch, Nan let out a faint moan and her eyelids flickered. Her skin is clammy and hot to the touch. She felt for the pulse in Nan 's neck and then for the one in her wrist. Too fast. Perhaps her guess about the ham had been correct. The vomit could indicate a stomach ailment, but-
A hail from outside made Phebe jump and drew her to the double windows. Just in front stood a small table, atop it an unfinished game of solitaire. The backstool beside it was lying on its side. Had Nan knocked it over when she was first taken ill, then crawled for the door? Phebe righted it, then opened the window wide and leaned out.
" There you are." Graunt sounded relieved, and she wondered how long he had been calling her. "How is Mrs Shelton?" He shaded his eyes.
She removed the tiresome nutmeg from her mouth so she could answer. "I found her on the floor of her room. She must have been lying here for several hours."
He grimaced. "Is it plague?"
"As yet, I don't know."
"Have a care."
With a wave of acknowledgment, Phebe retreated inside. She left the spit-soaked nutmeg on the windowsill; how Hodges bore the discomfort she had no idea - perhaps she should have chosen the smaller one. Without it, though, she felt a vulnerability only her father's lozenges could ease. With a murmur of apology, she took hold of Nan by the ankles and tugged her a few inches further from the door. Then she retrieved her basket and hat from the landing, popped a lozenge in her mouth, and returned her attention to Nan 's welfare.
There was a bed against the far wall, its hangings tied back, a chamberpot peeping from beneath it. Nan would be more comfortable there than on hard floorboards. Ignoring the sour odour of sweat and sickness, Phebe draped Nan 's arm around her shoulder and heaved her to her feet. Or tried to. Nan was taller and heavier than she was, and Phebe feared she was going to wrench a back muscle before she got her across the room.
Her clumsiness provoked another moan, and this time Nan 's eyelids flickered open to reveal glazed blue eyes. "Phebe?" Nan regarded her in confusion. "What are you doing here?"
"Can you stand?" managed Phebe, through clenched jaws.
For a moment, she wondered if Nan had heard her, then the weight on her shoulders eased, and together, they staggered towards the bed. It was only a few paces, but by the time they reached it Phebe was panting.
"My head's splitting," said Nan , slurring her words. "I think I'm going to be-" She retched and Phebe positioned the chamberpot barely in time. After that, Nan improved a little, but it was a brief respite, and soon she had lost consciousness once more.
A table beside the bed held a candlestick, a small looking glass, a water bowl and jug, both half full, and a washcloth, bone dry in this heat. Phebe dunked the cloth in the tepid water, and used it to bathe Nan 's face. Nan muttered under her breath, but Phebe couldn't catch the words. Nan's lips were so dry they were beginning to crack, so Phebe filled a cup from a barrel of ale she had spotted and trickled some into Nan 's mouth. At first it spilled over and ran down Nan 's chin, so Phebe stroked her throat until she gave a convulsive swallow. Good.
The ale had made a mess, so Phebe reached for the washcloth once more and bathed Nan 's neck and then her shoulders. She was moving aside the lace that edged Nan's bodice when she saw the tiny red pinpricks, like fleabites but hard to the touch, that dotted Nan 's chest.
Panic erased all thought, and when Phebe came to herself again she was standing at the bottom of the stairwell, with no memory of how she had got there. As she gazed out at the sunlit street, relief warred with shame and self-loathing. The desire to escape was overwhelming, but she held herself in check. Father didn't run away and leave Hale to die all alone. He sent me to safety and stayed with his friend until the very end. She swallowed. Nan needs me.
"Has she the plague?" Graunt's voice startled her, and she became aware that he was looking in at her, his gaze a mixture of curiosity and pity.
She nodded. But which kind: fast and fatal, or slower and painful with a 1 in 3 chance of pulling through?
"She'll need a nurse keeper," he said, matter-of-factly. "I know a woman who lives in the Strand . Come." He beckoned. "I'll chain and padlock the door, then go and fetch her. Will Mrs Shelton pay with her own coin, or -"
"I'll do it." The words escaped Phebe's lips before she could stop them.
"What? Pay for the nurse-keeper?" His eyebrows rose. "That's generous of y-"
"No. I'll be her nurse-keeper." Are you mad? bleated an inner voice. But deep down, and without conscious thought, Phebe had made her decision. If she didn't do all in her power to save Nan , she couldn't live with herself. She had as much knowledge of the plague's causes and treatment and as much access, through her father, to medicines as any in London . So be it. She took a step back.
Graunt's eyes widened. "Now now! No need to risk your own health and safety. There's others who're more than willing."
Aye. For a fee. Her mouth twisted. Poor wretches, to be so desperate.
"And Mrs Shelton won't thank you for it, you know," he said, his manner coaxing. "Besides, what of your father's patients? Don't they need you too?" At her lack of reply, he threw up his hands. "On your own head be it. Once I lock this door, it'll be 28 days before you can set forth again. Understand?" He waited, then said more loudly, "Mrs Bonnick. Do you understand me?"
She nodded, then saw that the watchman needed her to say the words. "I understand." She paused. "Will you send word to my father? Tell him what has happened?"
He sighed. "Aye."
She remembered the basket she had left upstairs in her haste. Father must do without the herbs and spices she had purchased from Cheapside . Fortunately, she could make use of some of them herself. But if she was going to treat Nan for plague- "Could you also ask him to send me a lancet and some mustard plasters?" Father would know at once what she needed those for. Buboes.
His eyebrows shot up. "You should be cursing me not thanking me, Mrs Bonnick. As I'm cursing myself. Wish I'd never let you inside."
She shook her head. "It was my own decision, Mr Graunt. Please don't blame yourself."
Before her willpower could fail her, she turned and started back up the stairs. As she climbed, she heard the thud of the door closing behind her. Then came the clank of chains and thump of the padlock settling into place.
Saturday, 8th July 1665
Packed benches stretched to the rear of the playhouse's auditorium - there were even people in the aisles - and expectant faces peered from every box. Nan 's pleasure at seeing such a full house turned to trepidation, though, as it dawned on her that she had no idea what play she was in.
Pretending nonchalance, she glanced at the shutters the scene movers had pulled into position and saw they were depicting a grey stone wall hung with instruments of torture. And stage right was a rack, leaning at an angle that would ensure its two occupants were visible to the audience. Recognition dawned. The Indian Emperor. But surely her character, Alibech, was absent from the prison scene. Belatedly she took in the costume she was wearing - gorgeous robes, fit for the emperor himself - and the cord binding her wrists. I'm wearing Mohun's Montezuma outfit!
With a rustle of clothing and tramp of feet more players emerged from the wings. Their appearance provoked a ripple of applause from the audience, and, content to be no longer the sole object of their scrutiny, Nan relaxed. Then Mohun himself limped over and took his place beside her. His hands were also bound, and he was wearing the robes of an Indian High Priest. Had everyone swapped roles and she had forgotten?
An expectant hush fell, and the armoured figure of Pizarro ( Is that Hart? ) addressed his Spanish guards. "Fasten the engines, stretch them at their length." He gestured towards the rack. "And pull the straitened cords with all your strength."
Gripping Nan and Mohun by the arms, the guards led them to the rack, and the audience let out a hiss of anticipation. She leaned back against the wooden frame, and allowed the cords to be looped loosely around her wrists and ankles. Silence fell.
"For God's sake, Nan ," muttered Mohun, who was also allowing himself to be tied. "It's your cue."
She felt a jolt of fear. Her mind was a total blank.
"The gods who made me once a king," came a stage whisper from the prompt pit.
Relieved, she repeated the lines fed to her until it was someone else's turn.
"Pull harder yet," urged the Christian Priest, whose face and name had slipped her memory. "He does not feel the rack."
The guards reached for the rack's handles and turned them, tightening the cords. The silence stretched, and so, to her shock, did Nan 's limbs.
"Pull till my veins break," hissed the prompt man, and Nan realised it was her line again. Distracted by the unexpected bite of the cords into flesh, she repeated his words.
Pain bloomed in her armpits and groin. "Not so tight, you fools," she hissed. But the actors playing the guards ignored her.
"When will you end your barb'rous cruelty?" asked Mohun. His performance was unnervingly convincing, and his words emerged between gasps. "I beg not to escape, I beg to die."
The sweat broke out on Nan 's forehead, and she knew, even if it meant ruining the play, she must free herself. Her plea died on her lips, though, as she turned her head and saw beneath the nearest Spaniard's stage makeup, the cold, hard face of a stranger. "Mohun-" In a panic, she turned to him for assistance, only to find a stranger had taken his place too.
What in God's name is happening?
The pain was becoming excruciating. "Something is dreadfully wrong! Release me," she shouted, hoping someone in the audience would leap to her aid. But a glance at the front row revealed it was now filled with donkeys, apes, bears, and dogs, their teeth bared, eyes glinting with cruel enjoyment. Terror flooded through her.
"Forgive me. There's no other way."
The voice was a woman's, soft and familiar, and Nan twisted round, trying to locate its owner. Pizarro's face loomed above her, his expression leering, and the pain in her right armpit worsened.
"I've given you as much opium as I dare." The voice was issuing from his lips, she saw. "But the buboes must be burst."
At the word 'burst', agony spiked through her and the world began to spin. A buzzing sounded in her ears, increasing in volume until it was almost deafening. She wasn't sure which was more pressing - the need to scream or to vomit. But before she was forced to choose, oblivion swooped down on her and carried her away.
Sunday, 9th July 1665
The sun had risen an hour ago, and the church bell in the Piazza was striking six, when Phebe set aside her lancet. With a grimace she wiped away the foul-smelling discharge. The bubo in Nan 's groin had been the largest and most stubborn - a blotchy, mouldy egg causing increasing discomfort as it pressed on the nerve in her thigh. The mustard plasters must have added to her pain. It had been necessary, though, to soften the buboes so Phebe could lance them. And already Nan was resting more peacefully.
But this fever worries me. She rested her hand on Nan 's forehead, dismayed by the heat still radiating from it.
Graunt's hail from outside - he must have just come on shift - drew her to the window. She had placed chafing dishes on hot coals around the room, and a coal fire was burning in the small hearth. As a result, the morning air as she opened the window felt wonderfully cool and fresh against her skin. For a moment she allowed herself to enjoy it, then she turned her attention to the watchman below.
With a jolt of surprise saw a familiar figure standing next to him, frowning. "Father!"
The walk from Walbrook had left him dusty and dishevelled, and, suddenly self-conscious, she smoothed down her own hair. It had been Hannah who brought the lancet and plasters Phebe requested, and made the daily journey since. For him to come in person- She winced and wondered if he was still angry with her.
He cupped his hands around his mouth. "Are you well?"
She nodded, and his frown eased. "I'm sorry, Father. Nan needed me. I had to-"
He waved her to silence. "What's done is done and we must make the best of it. Are you still taking my lozenges?"
She nodded. "And you, are you well?" There were deep shadows under his eyes.
"Well enough." He pulled out a kerchief and mopped his brow. "How is your friend?"
"I've lanced her buboes, but her fever is rising fast."
"You must keep it down."
He pocketed the kerchief. "On no account let her get cold, Phebe. Nothing cold to drink, no matter how much she may beg you for it."
She rolled her eyes at him. "I know. "
"Good. But you're still my apprentice so you must permit me to question you." He smiled. "I've every faith in you, Phebe. And in the will of our Lord, of course," he added half-heartedly.
She nodded. She was beginning to wonder if there was a God. What kind of loving deity could let loose such a pestilence? Even those who thought Charles' decadent court deserving of such a fate must be hard-pressed to explain the suffering of so many innocents.
"I've brought you some food and medicines," continued her father. "And more sulphur for your chafing dishes." He handed a bulging sack to Graunt and added a few coins, which the watchman pocketed with thanks, before turning to her again. "I must go," he said, with obvious reluctance. "After church I have my own patients to tend to. God keep you safe, Daughter."
"And you, Father."
With a smile and a weary wave, he turned and trudged back the way he had come. For a while she watched his receding figure, then she tore her gaze away and sent Nan 's basket down to Graunt for the supplies.
Phebe closed the window and resumed her place by Nan 's sickbed. Nan 's face was flushed and her breathing had acquired a harsh, rasping quality that Phebe didn't like. As she mopped the glisten of perspiration from Nan's brow, Nan 's eyelids trembled but didn't open. Nan 's lips moved, but the words were too faint to make out.
"What is it?" asked Phebe, leaning closer.
"A favour," murmured Nan . "You promised."
She was about to ask what favour when it dawned on her that Nan must be dreaming. The next words confirmed Phebe's guess.
"Where is it?" Nan 's brows creased. "I had it." Agitation made her fingers twitch. "Please, Your Majesty. Don't go. I swear I have the ring. Wait. Wait , I say!"
Phebe recalled Graunt's words about the errand Nan had sent him on and thought of the signet ring now nestling in a drawer. "All is well, Nan ." It was important to be encouraging and cheerful, Father said. Even if there was little to warrant it, so she leaned closer to Nan 's ear. "The ring is here and in my safekeeping. Do you hear me, Nan ? It's safe."
Perhaps Nan heard her and perhaps Father's advice was sound, for Nan rested a little easier after that, and when she next spoke it was about something else. "The spring is dry," she murmured. "I'm thirsty, mama. So thirsty."
They had both lost their mothers while young - Phebe's to puerperal fever, Nan's to an accident involving a cart delivering ale to her uncle's tavern. Was Nan dreaming of Madeley and happier times?
She trickled some ale between Nan's lips, exclaiming when it slopped down Nan 's chin and soaked her shift. Not that the shift could be any more rank and sopping than it already was. In order to disturb Nan as little as possible, Phebe had changed neither her clothes nor her bed sheets. A folded stack of fresh linen, purchased a few days ago at Nan 's direction, so Graunt said, lay on the heavy wooden trunk that did doing double duty as a seat, but it must wait. I'll change them when her fever has broken. If it breaks. As for the soiled sheets, Phebe would bundle them up and leave them in one of the empty rooms. There was no satisfactory means of washing them, and even if their removal from an infected house hadn't been forbidden, what laundress would risk laundering them?
Ten minutes later, Nan began to toss and turn. Her eyelids flickered open, but the eyes beneath were sightless, and her hands reached out, as if seeking something or someone.
Phebe took Nan 's hands in hers. "You're not alone, Nan . It's Phebe. I'm here and I'm going to get you through this. But you must be strong." She willed her words to penetrate the fog that must surround Nan . "Can you hear me? You must fight ." To her dismay, her grip seemed to confuse rather than comfort Nan, so she let go, only to find Nan 's hands reaching out once more. She clasped them again, but with the same result. She didn't try to take hold of them again.
Nan was muttering almost constantly now, her words unintelligible. Were dreams the cause of her distress or some new pain? Rivulets of sweat trickled down her face, and a fierce heat radiated from her skin. Phebe felt for a pulse and found it racing beneath her fingertips. With relief and dread, she realised that the moment of resolution was almost upon them. Nan 's fever was coming to its head - an ordeal that proved too much for many, weakened by what they had endured. But she's young and strong. Or had been, before the pestilence attacked.
Phebe pushed her doubts aside and devoted herself to keeping Nan comfortable. Despite her best efforts, though, Nan 's breathing grew laboured, and she began to thrash about with such violence that Phebe grew frightened she would fall out of bed. Using her own bodyweight to anchor Nan , she held her tightly to keep her from injuring herself.
"Hush," she crooned in Nan 's ear. "All will be well." God help her to survive this.
Phebe had lost all track of time, when Nan let out a great cry, arched against her, and went limp. She became aware of a deafening silence - the harsh breathing that had been a constant accompaniment for the last few hours had stopped - and stared at Nan in horror. Her face was pasty, and her chest wasn't moving. No! She cannot be. Stunned, she pressed her ear against Nan 's chest. Nothing. A lump clogged her throat and she raised her head in despair. Oh Nan . After all we've-
The faintest of movements, detectable only because she was pressed against Nan 's side, stopped Phebe in her tracks. Had she imagined it? Heart pounding, she stilled her own breath. This time, the rise and fall of Nan 's chest was more pronounced, and Phebe clearly heard the inhale and exhale that accompanied it. As she watched, a pink tinge suffused the ashen pallor of Nan 's face. She's alive! With a shaking hand, she felt Nan 's forehead. The touch of her skin confirmed it. Nan 's temperature was dropping back to normal. Her fever has broken.
Careful not to disturb Nan , Phebe disentangled herself and stood up. Nan's breathing paused, and for a moment she feared she had become complacent too soon, but then Nan rolled over and her breathing resumed, and Phebe let out a sigh of relief. A deep, healing sleep was the best restorative any physician could prescribe. A long recuperation period lay ahead for Nan , but for now the worst was over.
As the tension in Phebe's shoulders eased at last, a wave of exhaustion rolled over her. She must scavenge a mattress from one of the other rooms and place it on the floor next to Nan 's bed. But before she did that and allowed herself to rest, there was one more thing she must do. Feeling guilty and embarrassed that she had ever doubted Him, she dropped to her knees and gave thanks to God.
Friday, 21st July 1665
One minute Nan was in Islington Fields, watching her husband chase Mark Trevor around the duck ponds with a halberd, the next she was gazing at the limewashed ceiling of her room. Memory returned and with it a stab of fear. "Phebe," she called out.
"Here," came the familiar voice.
Relief flooded through her and with an effort she raised herself on one elbow and looked round. Phebe was standing by the open, sunlit windows, gazing out at Drury Lane . Nan wondered what she had found of interest. She could hear only the chirping of sparrows and, in the distance, the dismal tolling of a church bell. "Are you well?"
Phebe turned with a smile and came to sit on the bed next to her. "You've asked me that every day since you recovered your wits. Rest easy. I checked myself for signs when I awoke, as usual. There are none."
"Thank God." Nan collapsed back against the pillow.
"And you?" A strand of hair had stuck to Nan 's cheek and Phebe brushed it aside. "How did you sleep?"
"And you always ask me that ."
Phebe cocked her head. "Well?"
"I had strange dreams."
"Was Montezuma torturing you again?"
"No." Nan grasped after the fading fragments. Sam had been dressed as Good Queen Bess. And watching the chase with Nan , his roars of laughter setting a covey of ducks quacking in protest, had been Little Sid. "It wasn't a nightmare. Just... strange. What time is it?"
"Two. You've slept away the morning."
"What were you looking at?"
Phebe shrugged. "A pigeon flying over the rooftops. The weeds and grasses sprouting between the flagstones. Lord Craven's visitor. I grew tired of reading." She answered Nan 's unspoken question with a smile. "Your parts. And that play you started to write."
"You must be desperate." The sounds of a lute wafted through the wall, and Nan let out a groan. "Is Collier still with us? I was hoping the plague had carried him off."
Phebe chuckled. "Thank God it didn't or our quarantine would have been reset. As it is, we've only thirteen more days to serve."
"Thirteen, is it? I'd lost count." A need made itself felt and Nan shifted in her bed. "Will you bring me the chamber pot?"
"Of course." Phebe fetched it from the corner and set it beside the bed, then, without waiting to be asked, leaned over so Nan could place an arm around her shoulder, and helped her to lower herself onto the pot.
"Thank you." Nan wondered when her legs would be able to fully support her weight once more.
When she had first become aware of the gentle hands wiping away her filth, Nan had felt helpless and embarrassed that Phebe was seeing her at her worst and most vulnerable. But Phebe had risked her life to nurse her, and was herself having to endure levels of enforced intimacy more usually reserved for close members of the family. Under such circumstances, shame and embarrassment had no place, Nan had decided, and she now viewed Phebe's help with wry acceptance and gratitude.
She finished relieving herself, then let Phebe help her back to bed and take away the pot. A fortnight in bed and Nan still felt like a beached whale. Or as if a cart had run over her. She wiped the sweat from her upper lip and saw her hand was shaking. How long would it take her to regain her strength? What if she never did?
The mattress sagged as Phebe resumed her place. As if guessing the tenor of Nan's thoughts, she felt Nan 's forehead with the back of her hand. "You're a little hot but it's no wonder. This Summer's the hottest I can remember."
"Drink this." Phebe took a cup of tepid ale from the table and held it to Nan 's lips. She drank a little, then, thirst sated, let her head flop back onto the pillow.
"Now rest." As if Nan had been doing anything else! "I'll bring you something to eat. Are you hungry?"
Nan shook her head.
"Even so. It will help you regain your strength. And bread soaked in milk shouldn't overtax you."
That didn't sound too bad. "Milk?"
Phebe nodded. "Hannah brought fresh supplies while you slept. We've milk, bread, beer, and a hunk of bacon. Oh, and another sacks of dried peas." She paused. "Hannah's been coming a lot. I know father is busier than ever - Dr Hodges has been charged with caring for the sick poor within the Wall and Father is assisting him - but even so...." Her brow creased. "I think it's because of Graunt. You should see the girlish way she acts around him, Nan . If I don't miss my guess, she's fond of him."
"Graunt?" Surely she couldn't be referring to the watchman. That flattened nose and ugly scar. And isn't he a deal older than Phebe's cookmaid?
Phebe chuckled and nodded. "Poor Nan . Your wits are still fogged and here I am, gossiping about my cookmaid. Father would disapprove."
"But Graunt!" Nan pulled a face. "Even his mother couldn't call him pleasing to the eye."
"Perhaps Hannah doesn't care about such things. Or perhaps she isn't choosy." Phebe wrinkled her nose. "Not everyone has admirers hanging on their every word."
"I don't! ... Do I?" said Nan , uncertain whether she had just been flattered or insulted.
Phebe shrugged. "In any case, Graunt's unattached and he works hard. And he's kind, Nan . Another watchman might not have let me enter the Cock and Pie."
"I'm not sure that was 'kind'," muttered Nan . If Phebe had caught the plague - she still might, though she took one of her father's lozenges every day - Nan would have a bone to pick with him.
"He likes Hannah too. I can tell by the way his eyes light up." Phebe's tone became wistful. "If she marries him, I shall be sad to see her go."
"Have you married her off already? I thought she was merely 'fond' of -" Nan stopped as another bell, much closer than the previous one, began to toll. They exchanged a glance. Another funeral. But thanks to Phebe's efforts not Nan 's.
She reached for Phebe's hand and took it. "Sometimes I wonder who'll be left when all this is over." What of her friends in the King's Company, and Killigrew? And what of Sophia in Kent ? Even though she had deserted Nan in her hour of need, Nan did not wish her dead.
"As do I," said Phebe. "What if it were to take from us the King himself?"
Nan snorted. "Little risk of that. He's safe at Hampton Court , and if the plague comes too close for comfort, he'll simply up sticks and move."
"True." Phebe bit her lip. "I've been meaning to ask you something, Nan ."
"When you were first struck down, Graunt said something about you wanting him to take that ring of yours to the King. You were muttering about a ring while you were delirious too."
"Was I?" Nan sighed. "Aye, that ring once belonged to the King. I was hoping he might redeem it from me for the favour he promised."
"Favour?" Phebe's eyes widened. "Did you render him some service?"
"A small one." She shrugged. "It was so long ago, I still answered to the name Nan Simkin," she said without thinking. "It was in Madeley and Cromwell's troops were hunting Charles. He was lost and-"
"Simkin?" interrupted Phebe, looking puzzled. "I thought your name was Shelton ."
Nan felt a sinking feeling in her gut. She had meant to tell Phebe earlier, but had never got around to it. "That's my husband's name."
Phebe let go her hand and stared at her. "You're married ?" Then her cheeks flushed. "Oh! You're a widow. I'm sorry, Nan , it never occurred to me-"
"Not a widow." Nan licked her lips. "But we live apart, and have done for several years."
"I see," said Phebe, though it was plain she didn't. "Why didn't you tell me?" She sounded hurt, and Nan winced.
"Because Sam plays no part in my life." Except when he is asking me for money. "He lives in Antwerp . With his lover, Joseph."
Curiosity replaced the hurt in Phebe's eyes. "A man?"
Nan nodded. "I knew he liked men when I married him. It... suited us both."
"Oh." From the furrow in her brow, Phebe was thinking hard.
"Sam was an actor, and when I first met him he was at the height of his powers. You could say I owe my career to him." He claims I do.
It had been March 1661, and Nan was in the Blue Bell tavern, washing down bread and cheese with a cup of ale, and contemplating her future, or rather the lack of it. Her savings were gone, and with them the dreams that had brought her to London three months earlier. Loud laughter from an adjacent room broke through her gloom and made her seek out its source. Four men, the oldest in his forties, the youngest yet to turn twenty, but all with the glow of prosperity about them, were sitting around a table, eating and drinking. It took her a moment to recognise the actors that, in a last attempt to cheer herself, she had seen performing at the playhouse around the corner that very afternoon.
The youngest two were so handsome they reminded her of Greek gods. One spotted her peering around the doorpost and called out, "Greetings, fair maiden." His tones were boyish, almost feminine - no wonder he had made such a convincing woman onstage. Ganymedes rather than Apollo. "Come and join us," he cried. "We've more than enough sack to go round."
To mingle with such exotic company was tempting, but Nan hesitated. "Aren't you the players from the Vere Street Theatre?"
"Indeed we are. Ned Kynaston, at your service," said the one she had dubbed Adonis - he too had played a woman, she remembered. Flashing her an engaging grin, he introduced his friends, starting with Ganymedes. "Sam Shelton, Walter Clun, Michael Mohun."
Nan curtseyed. " Nan Simkin. Pleased to make your acquaintance."
"Likewise," said Sam, who, closer to, was older than she had thought. "What did you think of our performance? Wasn't I the most convincing woman?"
His preening amused her and she renamed him yet again. Narcissus . "Oh yes," she said, smiling.
"Ha." His cry of triumph made the others roll their eyes. "And what of the rest?"
"Aye," said Kynaston with interest. "Don't spare our feelings, Mrs Simkin."
At that Clun had sucked his teeth, and Mohun winced and muttered, "Risky."
Seeing they were in earnest, Nan drew up an empty chair and accepted the cup of sack Sam gave her. Soon they were listening closely to her assessments, nodding agreement or taking issue with them, but in an amicable manner. And afterwards, as reward for her frankness, they entertained her and themselves with tall tales of life on stage and off. She had laughed until her cheeks and sides ached.
In time she had come to count them all as friends. Poor Clun. She sighed, remembering. Robbers had attacked him last year and he had bled to death in a Kentish Town ditch. She missed him and knew the rest of the company did too, Hart in particular - the pair had been boy actors together.
"So that was how you met your husband?" asked Phebe, as Nan brought her account to a close.
She nodded. "I sensed at once that Sam was no threat to my virtue. He wasn't interested in me in that way, or in any woman come to that. When he learned I had nowhere to stay that night, he invited me to take shelter at his lodgings and I accepted."
"I see," murmured Phebe.
Did she? Nan fiddled with a loose thread in her shift. "One night became two. Became... more. He needed looking after. I kept his rooms tidy and his clothes laundered, and ensured there was always bread and cheese for breakfast - he took his dinner in an eating-house near the playhouse, and his supper in whichever tavern took his fancy. We settled into a routine, lived like brother and sister. People assumed I was his mistress." She shrugged. "I was a useful decoy should any accuse him of dalliances with men."
She risked a glance at Phebe, but couldn't gauge her expression. Was that thoughtfulness or disapproval? She hoped the former. "While I was helping Sam with his lines, I discovered an aptitude of my own. It amused him to encourage me. He introduced me to Killigrew, and before long I'd been admitted into the non-speaking ranks of the King's Company." She risked another glance. "When Sam suggested making our living arrangement permanent, I saw no objection."
She waited for Phebe's reaction and, when none came, felt as if a gulf had opened between them, She was wondering sadly if they would ever bridge it when a wave of tiredness washed over her, and she yawned until her jaw cracked.
"I've worn you out with my curiosity," said Phebe, standing up. "Forgive me." She gave Nan 's shoulder a squeeze. "Rest now. When you wake, I'll have that bread and milk ready for you."
Comforted beyond measure by that squeeze, Nan closed her eyes and did as she'd been told.
Saturday, 5th August 1665
Phebe drummed her fingers on the windowsill. "What's keeping the constable? It's nearly midday."
Nan glanced at her. "He'll be here soon enough. Patience." She resumed her humming. Phebe didn't recognise the tune.
Today their quarantine was to be lifted, and Phebe would welcome the change of scenery. Weeks spent staring out the windows at the same stretch of Drury Lane , the monotony broken only by visits from Father or Hannah, the rumble and cry of the dead cart, and the comings and goings at the house opposite, were enough to test anyone's limits. On the other hand....
A sense of melancholy stole over her. For twenty-eight days she had shared every hope and fear, every sleepless night and tasteless meal with the woman standing next to her. It had been frightening and claustrophobic at first - thank heavens there were other rooms in which to take respite for an hour - but she had soon grown accustomed to it. And once Nan was on the mend and Phebe felt reasonably confident of not herself succumbing to the plague, they had been able to turn their minds to more light-hearted matters. In short, she had never felt so close to another person in her life - not even Mother - and all that was about to end.
"And if he doesn't come, Graunt will fetch him," said Nan . "Won't you, Graunt?"
Her shout elicited a wave from the watchman below, but he didn't break off his animated conversation with Hannah. It was fascinating how the years dropped away whenever he was with the cookmaid. His shoulders went back, he puffed out his chest, and he became more talkative than he ever was with Phebe or Nan . After every other remark he would check Hannah's reaction, and she too was more girlish. If she wasn't laughing at something he'd said, she was tossing her head or blushing, and sometimes she even poked him in the ribs.
A thought struck Phebe. "What will those two do once he no longer has us to watch?"
Nan shrugged. "Plenty of other houses need watching. Wherever he goes, she'll find some excuse to visit him, or meet him after his shift finishes." She resumed her humming then stopped. "I hope she's brought everything I asked for."
Phebe eyed the pack lying by Hannah's stout ankles. They were forbidden to remove anything but themselves from the Cock and Pie, so Nan had sent down a list of the items she needed. Phebe had wondered at its shortness: a sharp knife, some twine, a small cook pot, and a blanket. A light pack was all very well, but was Nan really planning to sleep out under the stars? It had rained last night, for the first time in ages.
"Must you go to Madeley, Nan ? A long journey cross-country will be dangerous for a woman on her own. And you've yet to fully recover."
Nan gave her a wry look. "We've been through this. I'm stronger every day. And if anyone threatens me, I'll say I have the plague and act the part with conviction. That should set them running." She grinned then rubbed the back of her neck, her expression thoughtful. "I hope I can still set a snare, though. Rabbit stew without any rabbit in it is watery fare."
Phebe wasn't at all keen on Nan 's plan. Apparently Nan's uncle had felt duty bound to take in his sister Lizzie and her bastard offspring (Nan's lips had twisted at that description of herself) under his roof, but room and board at the Barley Mow tavern had come at a price. Nan 's mother paid it by working as her brother's serving wench - she had been helping to unload ale barrels when something startled the carthorse and the cart crushed her to death. Before that tragic day came, though, the farsighted Lizzie had provided her small daughter with something beyond the reach of most in Nan 's position - an education. Nan's nameless father - when she was small she'd pretended it was the King - had given Lizzie a heavy coin purse, and though her brother protested, she used its contents to pay first for Nan 's attendance at petty school and then for a tutor. Without those lessons, Nan had told Phebe sombrely, she would have been ill equipped indeed to become a player. Oh, she knew Nell Gwyn had managed it, but Nell was more talented than Nan ever would be. Phebe had protested at that slur, of course, but she thought Nan was probably right.
From what Nan had told her, Phebe seriously doubted her aunt and uncle would welcome her into their home any more warmly now than they had back then, especially as she had slunk off to London without telling them. But Phebe could offer her no useful alternative - Nan would accept no more charity and had declined to lodge with her in Walbrook - so she kept her doubts to herself. She would miss Nan dreadfully though.
"You will write to me often, won't you?" she blurted. "When you reach Madeley?"
Nan smiled. "I've already said I will. Twice. Post houses permitting." She rested her hand over Phebe's. "And you must return the favour. London poses more of a threat to you than any adventures in Shropshire do to me."
Phebe doubted that, but didn't elaborate for fear of tempting Fate. Nan gave her hand a squeeze.
The crunch of footsteps drew their attention outside, and Phebe saw the constable striding along Drury Lane . "At last!" she cried, then was struck by doubt. "I hope he's not bound for some house further along."
Nan leaned out of the window. "No. Looks like he's heading straight for us," she reported, a fact confirmed when Graunt broke off his conversation with Hannah and straightened his doublet.
Nan had just pulled her head back in when a loud clatter from the landing made her exchange a startled glance with Phebe. They were used to having the place to themselves. "Collier?" The sound of booted feet clumping down the stairs to the padlocked door confirmed her guess.
Phebe pressed a hand to her racing heart. "He must have been watching for the constable too. Should we go down?"
Nan shook her head. "No hurry. The constable's still talking to Graunt."
As they watched, Graunt gave a nod and reached for the keys at his belt. He and the constable approached the door and were hidden from view. Nan leaned out of the window again, further this time, and Phebe grabbed the back of her bodice, fearful she'd topple out.
"They're scrubbing the chalk off the door," called Nan back to her. The sound of hammering split the silence. "And tacking up a notice. Oof! Help me back in, will you?"
Nan closed the window and grinned at her. " Now we may go down."
Phebe started to scan her surroundings, in case there was anything she had forgotten, then stopped, remembering it was pointless. But after four weeks, every object evoked memories, even the almost empty sack of dried peas, from which, thanks to Hannah's recipe, Nan had at last succeeded in making them a half edible pottage. There was the table by the window where they had sat playing cards and talking; the lumpy mattress on the floor, where Phebe had slept and on which they had taken it in turns to sit while the other knelt behind, massaging aches from neck and shoulders; the framed caricature of members of the King's Company, which Nan had used as a prompt to tell a series of increasingly hilarious tall tales about her friends.
"Come on," said Nan from the doorway, her voice jolting Phebe into motion.
Daylight streamed from Collier's open door as they walked past, the soles of their shoes smudging the shove-halfpenny lines Nan had chalked on the landing. As they started down the stairs that Phebe had run up and down several times a day, the clink and thud of falling chains replaced the hammering. Peering down, she saw a shadowy figure at the bottom of the stairwell, a lute strapped to his back. She was about to call down a greeting when, with a loud creak, the front door opened. Sunlight flooded in, provoking an oath from Collier. Blinded by dazzling afterimages, Phebe let Nan take her elbow and guide her down the final flight of steps.
When she could see again, Collier had vanished and Graunt was standing in the open doorway, rubbing his elbow. "I know he was in a rush," grumbled the watchman. "But that was uncalled for."
With Nan beside her, Phebe stepped out onto the pavement. The vast expanse of sky above her felt overwhelming at first, but the feeling passed and she raised the head she had ducked and gazed about her in wonder. Grasses sprouted between the flagstones, and further up the road, several closed doors bore scarlet crosses. In the distance a church bell tolled.
Sudden doubt assailed her. Suppose this is just a dream and I wake up and find myself back in Nan 's room. ...
But her cookmaid was coming towards her, arms wide, a big smile on her face. "Praise God, you're free at last, Madam. Your father and I've been so scared." Tears glistened in Hannah's eyes, and the strength of her hug anchored Phebe.
This is real.
Phebe wondered where Nan was, and saw her reading the warning notice that had been tacked to their front door then talking to the constable and accepting their quarantine release slips from him. Phebe split her attention between eavesdropping and answering Hannah's enquiries after her health.
"Is it true I'll need a certificate of health before I may leave London ?" asked Nan . The constable nodded. "Can you supply me?" He shook his head. "Who can?"
"With the court gone, and Albemarle 's time taken up with fleet business, the Earl of Craven's in charge. Apply to him. Show him the release slip I gave you."
"Craven?" Nan gave the large house opposite a glance.
The constable followed the direction of her gaze and frowned. "He won't thank you for bothering him at home. No. You want Albemarle 's lodgings at the Cockpit. Might be a queue ahead of you, mind."
"Oh." Nan sounded disappointed. "Thank you."
With that, he strode off down Drury Lane .
Nan came over to join Phebe and Hannah. "Here." She handed Phebe the release slip with her name on it, tucked her own in her pocket, and gave the cookmaid a smile. "Thank you for bringing that." She indicated the pack lying a few yards away, and Hannah nodded. "Thank you too, Graunt. For all your kindnesses."
"Yes," said Phebe, with feeling. "Without your help, we wouldn't have fared half so well."
"Only did what I'm paid to." The watchman's voice was gruff and he shuffled his feet. Phebe hid a smile. "And on that note, I must be going," he said. "I've been assigned another house." He raised his eyebrows at Hannah, and she mouthed something in response. Phebe couldn't make it out but thought it likely it was a promise to see him later. "God speed you, ladies."
"And you," they said in unison.
They watched him trudge away until he had turned the corner, then Phebe realised that Hannah was fidgety and anxious to get her back to Walbrook and her father. Eager as she was to oblige, she felt torn.
"The time has come," said Nan , and Phebe saw sad understanding in her gaze. Nan opened her arms, and Phebe stepped into them.
It was a different hug from the one Hannah had given her. Different too, from the many hugs they had given one another during their ordeal. Phebe was hard pressed to describe what had changed, but she hugged Nan fiercely, fearful that they might never see one another again.
"There, there," murmured Nan in her ear. "We've promised to meet again, haven't we?" Phebe couldn't form the words to reply, so she nodded. "Then this is merely a temporary parting."
The arms around her loosened and fell away, and Phebe forced her own to follow suit. For a long moment they regarded one another. Nan was the first to break their gaze. She retrieved her pack.
"Take care of your mistress," Nan told Hannah, who had been watching them curiously. "That soft heart of hers will lead her into harm's way - this last month in quarantine proves it. Keep her from the worst, if you can."
Hannah nodded and smiled. "I'll try."
"Thank you." Nan slung the pack over her shoulder and settled it so it was comfortable. "Then I'm for Whitehall and pastures new." She bowed, the gesture reminding Phebe of their very first encounter outside the King's Playhouse, and gave Phebe a crooked smile. "Fare thee well, sweet maiden."
"I'll write," croaked Phebe round the lump in her throat.
Nan nodded and held her gaze. "See that you do."
Wednesday, 9th August 1665
The track that would lead Nan to Madeley, she hoped, was treacherous. Muddy potholes that could turn an ankle pocked it, and it was slippery with the wildflowers and grasses the heavy rain of a few nights ago had triggered into growth. But as she plodded along it, her thoughts were elsewhere. Better not to think of her sore feet and aching calves, or of the sweat aggravating her insect-bitten face and the nettle welts on her arms. Over the past four days she had become a clockwork toy that placed one weary foot in front of the other come wind, rain, or shine, until sunset, when she allowed herself to stop and find a dry spot to spread her blanket - sometimes easier said and done. Then, at last, she would sit, eat what little she had foraged, and fall into an exhausted, dreamless sleep that rewound her spring enough to enable her to do it all again the next day.
It had taken her awhile to adjust to freedom and wide-open spaces after her long days of close confinement, and to the lack of companionship. She had grown used to sharing her thoughts with Phebe, and several times turned her head to remark upon something, the words dying on her lips when she realised she was alone. The time they had spent together in the Cock and Pie was often in her thoughts. She'd enjoyed making Phebe laugh. That unladylike snort and gurgle, which so mortified its owner, delighted Nan , and she had made it her goal to elicit it as much as possible. She hoped Phebe would still find occasion to laugh now she was back in Walbrook, but somehow she doubted it.
Something hard - the cook pot, probably - was sticking into her hip, so she shifted the pack until it didn't. Thank God it was only a few miles more. She crunched one of the green hazelnuts she had shelled last night between her teeth. It was strange to think she was in all likelihood following the path King Charles should have taken all those years ago had he not got lost. Last night, while she was waiting for the rabbit to cook on its makeshift spit, a feeling that her surroundings were familiar had stolen over her. She had stood up, turned full circle to get her bearings, and realised she was close to Boscobel. Thick trees hid the house itself from sight, as they did the converted nunnery a mile or so to the southwest, but she had poached here often enough to know the lie of the land.
Local lore had it that the King had visited Boscobel and White Ladies during his flight from Worcester , before travelling on to Madeley. But then, local lore also had it that everyone had been a royalist then, eager to offer him shelter, and Nan knew from her own experience that the countryside had been crawling with roundheads wanting to run him through. Old Francis Wolfe would know the truth of it. The Penderel brothers too. The King had rewarded them for their assistance, though details of what they had done were still vague. Perhaps Charles himself would set the matter straight one day, though by then his memory might have faded, and even if it hadn't, Nan doubted he would mention her tiny part in events.
She twiddled the ring on her little finger. How different things might have been, for England and for herself, had she reported Charles to the watch that night. She wouldn't have stolen away to London to join the crowds gathering to celebrate the King's return. Or stayed on there and become an actress. I might never have met Phebe. Strange how the wheel of time turned on such a tiny axis. If she had left the Cock and Pie before the constable arrived.... But she might already have contracted the plague, and with no Phebe to nurse her, died of it, miles from anywhere.
And if she had embarked on her flight from London earlier, would she have encountered any less hostility? Nan had joked with Phebe that she would pretend to have the plague, but the joke was on her. Everyone took it for granted that strangers from London carried the contagion.
She had noticed it first just after Barnet. Barriers barred the approach to the next village, manned by men armed with pitchforks and cudgels, and a few women too. Nan had produced her Certificate of Health, which some called a plague pass, remembering how she had obtained it.
The Earl of Craven rested his chin on his hand and regarded Nan with a frown. There were deep shadows under his eyes, and he looked his age. Which is what... nearly sixty? "I know you, don't I?"
More accustomed to spying him in Drury Lane , Nan found it strange to see him sitting behind Albemarle 's huge desk. "Nan Shelton . Actress." He liked a play, she remembered. "You may have seen me at the King's Playhouse."
"The Parson's Wedding. Of course." He waved the information aside. "Not that."
She cocked her head. "I lodge at the Cock and Pie."
"Ah. The tavern that was shut up." Craven reread the quarantine release slip she had given him and set it to one side with a nod. "Yet you survived unscathed."
"Not quite." She indicated the healed bubo scars beneath her jaw.
"Indeed. But God in his mercy saw fit to spare you." A thought struck him. "Didn't Mrs Gwyn lodge there too? Is she-"
"She left for Oxford months ago."
Craven's relieved sigh revealed he had a soft spot for Nell. But then, so did many men. "Good, good." He took a certificate from the pile on his desk, inked his quill, and added Nan 's name to it. "Good fortune go with you, Mrs Shelton. Next. "
But the precious plague pass had proved to be almost worthless. As the hostile faces at the village barrier took no time in informing her, previous refugees had forged theirs and rewarded the kindness of those sheltering them with pestilence. Nan 's protestations that she had obtained her certificate from Lord Craven himself fell on deaf ears, as did her plea for some food for her journey. At last, defeated and dejected, she had bypassed the village entirely and continued on her way.
That incident had proved to be the pattern of things. She had got into the habit of giving all houses and inhabited settlements a wide berth, and relying on her own skills to provide for herself. The first two nights, her snare had been empty, and she'd eked out the last of her bread and cheese with a handful of ripe blackberries the birds had overlooked, then her luck turned and she found a scrawny rabbit waiting for her in her trap. Cooked with field mushrooms and a few leaves of Fat Hen, it had made a decent supper with enough left over for breakfast. And so it had continued. What she wouldn't give for a slice of Aunt Dorinda's fresh-baked bread though. It was the first thing she would ask for when she reached the Barley Mow.
The crack of a twig underfoot brought her back to her surroundings and with a jolt of surprise, she realised she knew this stretch of track. A hundred yards further on, just after it curved and the hedgerow hid it from sight, it joined a lane that would lead her to Madeley's market place. She shaded her eyes. In fact wasn't that the top of St Michael's spire in the distance? As if to answer her, its church bell took that moment to chime three in the afternoon.
Her spirits lifting, Nan quickened her pace, only to slow again on rounding the bend. The lane up ahead had been blocked, and as she took in the trestle tables and hurdles stacked to form a makeshift barrier, her heart sank. Somehow she had thought Madeley would be different. Unless the townsfolk had encircled it with a moat, there must be other ways in. When she had left, three hundred adults lived in the expanding market town and its environs. Some of the men worked at the local coal mine - they must still be able to get to work each day. And what of the boys coming in daily from the surrounding area to attend the grammar school, and the farm animals needing to be driven to market each market day?
If she pushed her way through the hedgerow and cut across the stubbled field, she could circle around to the east, and then.... Then what? Though she had sent word to that she was coming, she could not just turn up on her uncle's doorstep and expect him to keep her presence a secret. Once his neighbours got wind of her presence they'd take a dim view of her actions, and not look kindly upon him either. She gave the church spire, so tantalisingly close, another glance, and sighed. There was nothing for it. She must enter Madeley by the front door or not at all.
Squaring her shoulders, she walked towards the barrier. The jug-eared man lolling behind it caught sight of her, straightened, and let out a yell. Within seconds, three more men had come to join him, armed with a hoe, a blacksmith's hammer, and a halberd. "Halt, stranger," he yelled. "Come no closer."
There was something familiar about his voice and the way his ears stuck out. A moment's thought retrieved a name. "Stranger?" She stopped five yards from the barrier. "Don't you remember me, Jem Bower?" He had been one of those boys who called her names and jeered her for being too tall.
" Nan Simkin?" Bower's eyes widened and his companions exchanged a glance. One of them was a stranger, but she recognised the other two: her uncle's vintner and the draper from Church Street . If they remembered her too, that might work in her favour.
"Aye." She shifted her pack. "I've come to help Uncle Hal around the Barley Mow."
"Is he expecting you?" Without waiting for her reply, Bower spoke to the vintner. The man nodded, handed him his hoe, and jogged away.
"Never mind that," said the man with the hammer, who must have come to live in Madeley after Nan left. "Have you come from London ?" His beady eyes, filled with belligerence, reminded her of a cockerel she had once known - a likeness strengthened by the curling feathers in his hat.
Nan 's travels had taught her caution. "From Lichfield ." It was partly true. She had left the main road just before reaching there and followed the old Roman track of Watling Street west , before heading cross-country.
"And before that?" His eyes narrowed.
The draper snapped his fingers. "I remember her now. Went to London she did. Became an actress."
" London ." Cockerel almost spat the word. "I knew it."
Nan saw where this was going and didn't like it. "I have a Certificate of Health." She eased the pack off her shoulder, lowered it to the ground, and started to open it. "Let me show-"
"It's no such thing! Bring me a Bible and I'll swear as much."
Their exchange had been making Bower more and more ill at ease. "Perhaps we should wait for her uncle," he said. "I've sent word. If Mr Simkin is expecting her-"
Cockerel curled his lip. "It makes no difference. If there's a risk she's been infected, she can't enter. And that's that." He glared at her. "Go back to London . We don't want you here."
"We?" Nan drew herself up. "On whose authority are you speaking? You don't look like a constable or churchwarden, or one of the Brookes of Madeley Court ."
"Now, Nan ," said Bower, his face flushing. "Mr Cludd may be hasty, but he's only doing what we all agreed." His brow smoothed, and he went on, relieved, "Here's your Uncle now. Ask him yourself."
She followed his pointing finger and saw her uncle hurrying towards the barrier with the vintner. Uncle Hal was just as she remembered him, though the intervening years had streaked his beard with grey and added several inches to his stomach.
"Niece." He halted behind the barrier, his expression that of a man confronted with an unexpected and unwelcome problem. "This is a surprise."
Cockerel frowned. "I thought she said-" The others waved him to silence.
Nan 's heart sank. "Didn't you receive my letter?"
Her uncle scratched his beard, then shook his head.
The postboy must have been too scared to deliver it, or some botched attempt to disinfect the letter had destroyed it. Damn this plague for upsetting everything. "The Playhouse is closed. I thought you and Aunt Dorinda would welcome my help around the tavern - you are always so busy."
"Under normal circumstances." He sighed. "These are perilous times. You can't expect others to risk their lives for you."
"There is no risk." She balled her hands. "As I've been telling these men, I have a Certificate of Health, signed by the Earl of Craven himself a few days ago."
"We only have her word for that," growled Cockerel. "In any case, those at court can't be trusted. When they're not busy whoring and gambling and -"
"Peace." Uncle Hal held up his hand. "My niece's future is at stake. I need to think."
Need to think? Nan regarded him with dismay. She had always known he'd taken her and her mother under his roof out of duty rather than affection. But she was his dead sister's child. His kin. "I've walked over a hundred-and-fifty miles," she pleaded. "And my plague pass is genuine. Please don't turn me away, Uncle Hal."
He gave her a troubled glance. "It's not up to me. There must be a town meeting to discuss the matter." Cludd nodded vigorous approval. "I have to abide by their decision. Do you understand?"
"Aye." She shrugged. "But that will take time." And with the likes of Cludd turning people against her, she feared the meeting's outcome would not be to her liking. "What am I to do in the meantime?"
"To do?" His shoulders slumped. "Why, keep your distance and fend for yourself, Niece, what else?"
Thursday, 14th September 1665
For the first time that afternoon the shop was empty of customers, so Phebe retired to the other room, sank with a groan onto a chair, and rested her elbows on the dining table. Father was assisting Hodges with his plague patients, so her workload had doubled, but it could wait for a moment. She massaged her aching feet, her thoughts turning, as they so often did, to Nan .
Each day without news of her filled Phebe with more disquiet. She had expected a letter by now. Had it gone astray, or was Nan as rushed off her feet as Phebe was and too busy to write? Her heart thudded. Perhaps the plague had returned, in full strength this time, and Nan was lying dead in a ditch somewhere. Or she has forgotten all about me, and the promises we made one another. But that thought - though it had the merit of Nan 's still being alive - hurt too much to contemplate so Phebe banished it, though it would no doubt resurface when she was trying to fall sleep tonight. As if I haven't worries enough.
The shop doorbell jingled, and with a sigh, she slipped her shoes back on, and was about to go through when Hannah appeared in the doorway.
"The Letter Office stinks to high heaven and now so do I." The cookmaid removed her cloak one-handed - her other was holding the basket - and shook it out with a grimace. "They were fumigating, and the smoke was so thick I could barely make out the window man." Raising her eyebrows at Phebe, she made her way downstairs to the kitchen, and, eager for news, Phebe followed her.
"I posted your letters," said Hannah over her shoulder. "Though their survival is in the lap of the gods. Some postmasters are insisting they must be steamed over vinegar first."
Hannah placed the basket on the kitchen table, hung her cloak from a door hook, and donned her apron. She had been busy too, Phebe noticed with approval - there was new, blue lining paper on every shelf; a pleasing scent of rosemary and mint wafted from the herb pots on the windowsill; and everywhere, pewter, copper and brass gleamed.
"I asked the window man to check," the cookmaid went on, "but there was no correspondence for Mr Bonnick. Or for you," she added, with a grimace of sympathy.
Phebe bit her lip. Still no news of Nan . She should get back to her duties, but she felt no urge to do so. Besides, the bell above the shop door was audible from here.
Hannah unloaded the basket, and set about assembling the ingredients for tonight's supper. "I'm sure Mrs Shelton is well," she said, her tone preoccupied. "The post is all at sixes and sevens. When she receives no reply, she'll write to you again."
Phebe sighed. "I hope so."
"While you're here, Madam," Hannah darted a glance at her, then slid her gaze away. "May I... have a word?"
Her change in manner alerted Phebe. "About what?" she asked warily. Hannah's cheeks pinked, and Phebe's heart sank. She had known this moment was coming but she had hoped for more time. She braced herself.
"Graunt has asked me to be his wife."
"I see. And how have you answered him?"
Hannah's brows arched. "Said yes, of course. I'm not getting any younger. And he'll suit me well." Her gaze turned inwards. "Very well indeed."
She looked like the cat that had got the cream, thought Phebe. Have they already-? But it was none of her business, so she forced a smile. "Then I wish you both every happiness."
"Thank you, Madam."
Phebe's thoughts skittered ahead. The plague had disrupted the usual means of putting people in contact with prospective servants. And whoever took Hannah's place must meet with father's approval - a task in itself. Once hired, the cookmaid must also be trained to do things the Bonnicks' way. Which will fall on my shoulders.
"Erm." Hannah's voice drew her back to her surroundings. "Mr Bonnick won't be pleased I'm leaving, so I was wondering-" Her flushed cheeks deepened a shade.
Phebe regarded her in puzzlement, then the penny dropped. "If I could prepare him?"
Hannah gave a relieved nod. "The sooner the better. If you remember, I'm required to give only a month's notice."
So soon! "Couldn't you delay your departure a little, Hannah? Postpone your wedding until after Christm-?"
But the cookmaid was shaking her head. "He said you might suggest something of the kind. I owe you and Mr Bonnick a lot - if it weren't for you, I'd never have met Graunt - and I'm sorry for the inconvenience, truly, but he'd have us wed and moved into his house in Houndsditch yesterday if he could." From her expression the idea appealed to her. "You understand, don't you, Madam? After being shut up with Mrs Shelton and her coming so close to dying." Her eyes were pleading. "In times like these, you can't risk putting things off. Tomorrow may never come."
She had a point, thought Phebe. Every night I wonder if father will return safely. She sighed. "Very well. I'll speak to him tonight. After he's eaten and is feeling amenable."
"Thank you, Madam." Hannah added an onion to the pile of ingredients. "It's a hot supper tonight. To beef Mr Bonnick up a bit. He's been looking a bit peaky, if you don't mind my saying."
"I don't. He's working much too hard, but what choice has he? Thank you, Hannah."
The cookmaid smiled and reached for some carrots, then gave Phebe a sidelong glance. "Don't worry. I know of half a dozen girls in need of a new position who might do." Her brows knit. "Though I fear a couple may baulk at working for an apothecary."
"I understand. Thank you."
Hannah gave a nod. "Then I'll put this stew on to braise, and make up a list of their names and addresses, shall I?"
"I shall need testimonials," warned Phebe.
"That goes without saying. Though it might prove difficult, given their previous employers decamped without giving their cookmaids a second thought." Hannah bit her lip. "I can vouch for them, if it helps. And make sure they know just how Mr Bonnick likes everything."
She nodded. "I'll miss you. And so will Father, though he may pretend otherwise."
"And I'll miss you too, Madam. But I'm not gone yet, am I?" Hannah grinned. "The wedding will have to be a small affair, what with the plague making large gatherings unwise, but you and your father will both be very welcome."
"Thank you," said Phebe.
The shop bell's jangle brought their conversation to an end, and the endless stream of customers in need of advice and medicines resumed. By the time she had turned the shop sign to 'Closed', restored order to the counter and shelves, and put away the broom, night had fallen.
The appetising aromas wafting up from the kitchen set her stomach rumbling, and she was wondering whether father was going to be late for supper again, when he let himself in. His head was bowed, and his face drawn.
"You look weary." She helped him out of his cloak and hung it from the hook.
"It's been a long day." He raised his head, and she saw sadness in his eyes. "Harmon died this afternoon."
It took her a moment to understand. "The surgeon from Finch Lane who's been helping you and Dr Hodges?"
Hannah appeared in the doorway to the other room. "Good evening, Mr Bonnick." She curtseyed. "The table is set. Shall I serve supper?"
"In five minutes, Hannah. Thank you." The cookmaid vanished, and he continued their conversation. "He must have grown careless. While lancing a bubo, perhaps." He shook his head. "He went downhill at such a rate, Phebe! God curse this pestilence. If only we could learn how it's spread."
"I'm sorry. I know you and he had become friends."
"More like comrades in arms." He shrugged. "He was a useful fellow, and we'll be hard pressed without him. As will his wife and children." He heaved another sigh and fixed her with a keen gaze. "But how are you , Phebe? And the shop? I'm sorry all this" - he gestured at their surroundings - "has fallen on your shoulders. Are you feeling out of your depth?"
"A little." She shrugged. "Your books and notes help. But my feet ache. And we're busier than ever. And running low on almost everything."
"Make me a list and I'll see to it in the morning. Mm." His eyes brightening, he raised his head and sniffed. "Something smells delicious."
Phebe was glad to see his mood lifting. "Hannah has cooked beef stew." She didn't tell him that it was to soften him up for unwelcome news.
"Excellent." He rubbed his hands together. "Then let's eat."
Thursday, 7th December 1665
Nan stamped her feet, pulled her cloak tighter, and marvelled that she had ever felt too hot. The wind was chill this afternoon, and it didn't help that the mourning dress Aunt Dorinda had given her to wear - she'd been planning to throw it away anyway - was almost threadbare.
A buzz of conversation was coming from the mullioned windows a few yards from her, and she gave them a wistful glance. It would be warm in the roomy parlour and she'd have liked to see the interior of Upper House just once, but she knew better than to attempt to join those consuming claret and biscuits inside. My presence would cause trouble. And the old man deserves better than that.
Nan wasn't the only one waiting outside Francis Wolfe's house. A black-draped cart stood ready to receive his mortal remains and carry them to their final resting place. She had liked him, and his passing saddened her. At least he had died of old age. If it had been plague, I'd have received the blame. Even though Wolfe had been ailing for months and I've had no dealings with him since I arrived.
It had been touch and go whether she would be allowed to stay. Fear of the plague had gained a powerful grip on everyone in Madeley from the Lord of the Manor down to the town fool. It was only after Widow Goody and Apothecary Fletcher had, at Nan 's suggestion and from a safe distance, inspected the bubo scar on her neck and confirmed she had already survived the plague once, that the issue was put to a public vote. The result had gone against her, however, and the parish constables would have driven her away had not a desperate idea occurred to her. Suppose she underwent a second quarantine, one all could bear witness to? For 28 days she would camp in the copse just outside the town, shunning all human contact and fending for herself. Would that put their minds at rest? To her relief, Uncle Hal, who until now had stood by silently, spoke in her support. And after a lengthy consultation, followed by another public vote, the majority of Madeley's townsfolk acquiesced.
Life in Nan 's makeshift shelter was bearable at first - once her daily needs had been taken care of, she passed her time daydreaming about her friends or Phebe. But the weather turned colder and the local wildlife grew wise to her traps. Thanks to the loaves of bread and jugs of ale Widow Goody sometimes left secretly at the edge of the copse, she didn't quite starve. It was hard going, though, and lonely, and several times she almost gave in to the urge to head back to London . Somehow, she clung on. And at last the allotted period expired, and this time, those sullenly manning the barrier let her pass.
It was far from the life she had pictured though. Nearly four months had passed and fearful glances and mutters still followed her wherever she went. And she had noticed that the tasks Uncle Hal set her around the Barley Mow always kept her out of sight. "Business is bad enough, Nan ," he'd said, when challenged, "without giving folks cause to stay away." Though she resented it, it was hard to argue with cold logic.
"How long have you been waiting?" Widow Goody's voice jolted Nan back to the present. The wise woman always wore plain black clothes in the Puritan style, but in honour of Wolfe's funeral, she had added a new black muff, to keep her swollen fingers warm.
Nan glanced at the hazy Winter sun and did a quick mental calculation. "A half hour?" She stamped her feet again.
The Widow nodded. "A bitter cold day to wait. Still. It cannot be long now." She showed no sign of wanting to join the mourners inside Upper House, and Nan was grateful for her company. "I hear you received a letter."
"Aye." It was stained and torn, and reeked of vinegar, and she had been forced to collect it herself, as the postboy refused to touch any letter from London . It was Phebe's third letter, apparently, and she hadn't received any of Nan's and was beginning to fear Nan had forgotten her. Nan had dashed off a reply at once and was keeping her fingers crossed that this one got through.
"Did it contain news of your friend? Is she well?"
"Yes to both. Her father is well too, though she fears he's nearing exhaustion." Nan saw the widow's puzzlement. "Mr Bonnick is an apothecary. He's helping Dr Hodges to treat the plague sufferers within the City wall."
"A worthy task! And one I do not envy them."
The arrival of Phebe's letter had lifted a great weight from Nan 's shoulders, though she was sad that Phebe feared herself forgotten. Evidently the plague had eased a little - the cold weather perhaps - but it was still rife, and Phebe and her father were in the thick of it. In fact it had struck down their immediate neighbours. The widow had died of it first, then the constable had shut up her house with the rest of her family inside. In spite of Phebe and her father's efforts, all of the Nortons had perished. To her obvious distress. That could have been us, Nan , she had written in her clear hand.
Suppressing a shudder, Nan forced her thoughts to a more cheerful subject. "She sent news of a friend's wedding."
"Life goes on." The old woman's eyes twinkled.
Graunt's marriage to Hannah hadn't surprised Nan - anyone with eyes could see which way the wind was blowing - but the speed with which it had come about had. I'd have liked to be there to wish them well. Mr Bonnick hadn't taken his cookmaid's departure well, and bandied about words like 'betrayal' and 'abandonment'. ( Nan pictured Phebe rolling her eyes as she penned the words.) But Phebe reasoned with him and managed to ease his hurt, and Hannah's willingness to assist them in finding a replacement helped. In the end, Mr Bonnick not only presented the couple with linens for their bottom drawer, but also, in the absence of Hannah's own father, gave her away.
The ceremony in Houndsditch, where Graunt lived, had been a small affair, but none the worse for that. Phebe wrote that Graunt had looked uncomfortable in his Sunday best, and refused to relinquish his pipe, but everyone enjoyed themselves. And afterwards, a radiant Hannah had talked excitedly about the future, while Graunt looked 'dazed'.
Ha! thought Nan , amused. Too late to back out now, you old goat. You'll have several squalling brats before you know it.
The murmuring coming from the parlour windows had changed tone and pitch, she realised, and she turned to face the front door, prompting Widow Goody to do the same. Moments later it creaked open and eight burley bearers emerged, carrying a coffin draped in black. As they transferred it to the cart and straightened the pall, Nan saw it bore the lion crest granted to Wolfe by the King. Family and friends would have more personal memories of him, but to the general public he would always be known for providing the fleeing Charles with shelter. I wonder what people will remember me for . If they remember me at all.
From 100 yards further along Church Street , St Michael's bell began to toll. The mourners issuing from the house formed into a procession behind the cart, Wolfe's family and friends taking prime position, and with an apologetic glance at Nan , Widow Goody joined her friends. Uncle Hal and Aunt Dorinda looked so reluctant to be seen with her, Nan made her way to the rear of the procession. With a clop of hooves and creak of wheels, the cart set off. Behind it, everyone shuffled or marched, according to their health and disposition, and Nan tried not to tread on the heels of the person in front, and fell into gloomy introspection.
Coming to Madeley had been a terrible idea - Phebe had hinted as much, but Nan had ignored her warnings. In part it was because she needed to reassure herself that her only living relatives were well. As for the rest.... What on earth had made her think her uncle and aunt needed her help around the tavern? Business was slack, and Nan was frequently so bored she felt like screaming. The simple truth was that she was no longer the country girl who had run away to London . She'd grown used to the capital's bustle, and she missed it. She also missed the frantic production of order out of chaos that was life in the King's Company; the wit and sarcasm and drunken bonhomie of her friends; and most of all Phebe.
In Madeley, life revolved around market day on Wednesday and church on Sunday. Wolfe's funeral, for all its sadness, was at least something different. This wasn't home anymore, and hadn't been since her mother died. A distant memory surfaced: Mother collecting up the empties from the tables in the taproom, her eyes bright as she threw her head back with laughter at something someone had said. Oh Mother, I miss you.
The tolling of the bell was louder now, and Nan saw St Michael's up ahead. Around her, necks and backs straightened and the procession broke step as, their destination in sight, the conflicting needs of decorum and warmth made themselves felt. The person in front of her speeded up; grateful, Nan did too.
But if her home was no longer in Madeley, where was it? London , of course. Unfortunately, the circumstances that had driven her from it remained unchanged. With the Playhouse closed, and without other means of employment, she couldn't pay her rent. And besides, Winter's swift descent had made returning on foot out of the question, and even if she borrowed enough money to hire a horse, the roads would be treacherous.
I'm trapped here. For the time being, at least. The heaviness of Nan 's sigh drew glances, but she ignored them. If she took things one day at a time, she could bear it. With two quarantines under her belt, she was used to doing that. And in any case, what choice did she have?
Until Spring arrives and the weather improves then. And when it does- She raised her head, squared her shoulders, and followed the others up the path to the church door. - I'll be back on the road to London so fast they won't see me for dust.
Monday, 5th February 1666
Keeping one ear pricked for the shop bell, Phebe spooned rosemary-and-honey linctus into jars, corked them, and with a stub of pencil crossed that task off her list. The City had released Father and Hodges from plague service last month, but he was as busy as ever - this morning he was visiting a patient - and the number of tasks required of Phebe never seemed to shorten.
As she swept the floor, the bell jangled. But before she could set the broom aside, a familiar voice called through, "It is only me back from the Stocks, Madam." The new cookmaid appeared in the doorway, clutching a laden basket.
Deborah's name had been the first on Hannah's list of possible cookmaids, and she was a striking contrast to her predecessor. Whippet-thin, black-haired, and even shorter than Phebe, at first Phebe had found her daunting. But behind the tough exterior lurked a kind heart. More importantly, Deborah was a hard worker, and her cooking was as good if not better than Hannah's (though Phebe would not dream of telling Hannah so). To everyone's relief, after a wary initial couple of days, Father had pronounced himself satisfied and they had made her contract permanent.
"Did you manage to find everything?" asked Phebe, resuming her sweeping.
Deborah nodded, but showed no inclination to take the basket down to the kitchen. "A cart's pulled up next door. They're unloading furniture."
"Are they?" Phebe stilled the broom and rested her hands on the handle. "It's about time they re-let the Nortons' house."
The cookmaid pulled a face. "Wouldn't catch me staying in an infected house."
"It's been fumigated. It should be safe, and the rent will be cheaper."
Phebe felt a twinge of guilt that she hadn't attended the Nortons' funeral, though only her father, St Stephen's vicar, and the men driving the cart containing the shrouded corpses had been permitted to do so. Father had told her all about it afterwards, and she couldn't help contrasting the rushed ceremony to old Godfrey's. A memory of the black-and-gold mourning ring poor Rob Norton had given her surfaced, and she wondered what Father had done with it.
"Cheaper, eh?" Deborah sniffed. "I hope the new tenants aren't going to be riffraff."
Phebe wondered what the cookmaid's definition of riffraff was. Would Drury Lane actresses qualify? She made a mental note to ask Nan in her next letter. "And I hope they aren't going to annoy Father. His temper frays so easily these days." He had never been one to suffer fools, and he was always so tired.
"If they do, they'll have me to deal with," said Deborah grimly, and Phebe didn't doubt she would carry out her threat - she might not share Hannah's appearance, but years of household chores had given her the same muscular arms and wrists. "Talking of Mr Bonnick, I managed to get a pig's head and trotters." She indicated the basket. "I mean to cook him some brawn for tomorrow's dinner. Hannah told me he's partial to a slice or two."
Phebe smiled. "With mustard. Thank you. He'll enjoy that." Once more the shop bell jingled and she set aside her broom. "A customer. I must attend to him, Deborah. When you have a moment, could you take the dirty linen to the whitsters in Southwark? We can afford it this month, but if the City doesn't pay Father soon, we may have to start whitening it ourselves."
Smoothing down her apron, Phebe hurried through into the shop. She found a familiar figure humming to himself as he paced up and down. "Mr Rundell! Have you and your family returned?" If so, they had been among the first to flee and the last to come back. The King's return to Whitehall last Friday must have reassured them that plague was no longer a threat, though cases were still popping up here and there.
"Mrs Bonnick." He came towards her, smiling. He was plumper than she remembered- all that good country food. "We removed the Bread Street dustsheets on Saturday. How are you and your father?" He scanned the doorway behind her then returned his gaze to her, his expression enquiring.
"Well, thank you." She paused. "Father's visiting a patient. May I be of service?"
"God bless you, my dear. I'm not here to purchase anything. I've just been to inspect my new warehouse in Bearbinder Lane - intact, thank God - and I remembered you live around the corner."
He was referring to poor Hale's warehouse, she realised - Father had told her Rundell had bought it from the nephew, who lived in Norfolk and had no use for it. An image of Hale's purple, almost black fingertips surfaced, and with a shudder, she pushed it back down.
"I came to issue an invitation," Rundell continued. "Will you and your father come to dinner with us one evening next week?"
A commotion from outside pre-empted Phebe's reply, and she exchanged a startled look with Rundell then peered through the window. Another cart had pulled up opposite the one already stationed outside their neighbour's house. In the process, it had blocked Walbrook, and a red-faced coachman was gesticulating and shouting at the driver. A month ago, Walbrook had been almost deserted. Now....
Blinking at the unfolding drama, Rundell returned his attention to her. "Tuesday night?" he prompted. "Or Wednesday perhaps? Whichever suits. We remember your visit to us at Christmas with great pleasure."
Phebe doubted that. Or maybe it was just her. She had hardly spoken three words the entire visit, as Mrs Rundell and her daughters' idea of conversation was the latest fashions, the shortcomings of servants, the difficulty of finding a reliable fishmonger, and the birth of twins to a second cousin. If they learned Phebe had nursed an actress, who sometimes wore breeches and preferred women, back from the brink while in quarantine, they would be shocked. All the more reason to tell them, she pictured Nan saying, with that mischievous grin.
Oh Nan . When are you coming back? Her last letter had given no indication, though Phebe knew Nan hated Madeley and was planning to return to London at the first opportunity. But Rundell was still waiting for her answer, and she suppressed a sigh.
"Thank you. That is kind of you, Mr Rundell." Perhaps she could find some excuse not to go. "I can't speak for my father, I'm afraid. But when he returns, I'll pass on your invitation."
He smiled and nodded. "I look forward to his reply."
Monday, 19th March 1666
A church bell was striking noon as Nan took the steps up to the house in Portugal Row and rapped her knuckles on the front door. Its shabbiness surprised her - considering the rents Denholm charged, he could surely afford better accommodation.
The door creaked open revealing not her landlord but a wigless stranger. His doublet was unbuttoned, and a napkin hung from the open neck of his shirt. "Yes?" he said thickly, and she realised she had caught him in the middle of dinner.
"I'm looking for Mr. Denholm."
He swallowed and said more clearly this time, "Plague took 'im and his family."
"Oh!" Nan was taken aback. "I'm sorry-" The door began to close. "Wait! In that case, who's now landlord of the rooms above the Cock and Pie?"
The door reopened. "I am. Denholm was a cousin on my mother's side." Shrewd eyes raked her from head to toe. "Do I know you?"
"Nan Shelton . I'm with the King's Company."
"Never heard of you."
She shrugged, unoffended - the public had short memories, and the Playhouse had been closed since last June. "I'd like to rent the room I used to have, Mr-"
"Carter." He shook his head. "Sorry. Popular spot, the Cock and Pie."
"But I haven't told you which room."
"Makes no difference. They've all gone, see."
"What all of them?"
He folded his arms. "Can't leave 'em lying empty until it suits you, can I?" Calculation entered his gaze. "I can do you an attic room in Maypole Lane , though. If you're interested." His eyes flicked towards her then away again. "Same rent as the Cock and Pie."
It should be cheaper - that stretch of Drury Lane was narrower, noisier, and shabbier than the rest. But beggars couldn't be choosers and she needed somewhere to leave her few belongings while she searched for work. "I'll take it."
His eyebrows rose. "Sight unseen?"
It must be even worse than she'd thought. Nan nodded.
A grin split his face. "Done. One week in advance and the room's yours. Wait there, Mrs Shelton, and I'll get the rent book." He returned moments later clutching the dog-eared book she'd last seen in Denholm's hands
Nan counted into his palm the last of the coins she'd borrowed from her uncle, and accepted a receipt, sketchy directions, and room key in return. Splashing out money she could ill afford on dubious lodgings from an untried landlord wasn't the best idea in the world, but it meant she had a roof over her head.
A roof that leaks, she amended ruefully a quarter of an hour later, as she traced the source of the damp smell to a stain in the sloping ceiling. And not enough room to swing a cat.
The single grimy window and the dinginess of its walls made the room feel even smaller. A previous occupant had tried to brighten it by decorating the walls with flowers and curlicues, but the paint had faded until it was barely visible. Making a mental note to give everything a fresh coat of limewash, Nan rubbed a patch of windowpane clean with her elbow and peered out. She found herself gazing over rooftops at smoking chimneys. If she left the window open and the wind was in the wrong direction.... With a sigh, she turned her attention to the furnishings.
The cloud of dust that rose from the straw mattress when she sat on it provoked a sneezing fit. She waited for her eyes to stop watering, then grimaced at the stained, chipped chamberpot peeking out from under the bed. Under her feet was a threadbare piece of matting, the sole floor covering. It would keep her from getting splinters in her toes, but she doubted it would provide much warmth. Talking of which, there was no chimney and hence no hearth, just a rusting brazier. The coal bucket beside it must remain empty a little longer though, until she could afford to fill it. A rickety chair and a small table containing a single candlestick completed the picture of her luxurious new lodgings, and she couldn't help laughing, though it bordered on the hysterical.
Oh well. As soon as her circumstances improved, she would find somewhere better. On which note.... The jolting coach journey had left her feeling so shattered even the dusty mattress looked tempting, but if she was to pay a visit to Phebe today, she had better get started on her other errands....
The sound of hammering grew louder as Nan hurried up Playhouse Passage. A builder's cart heaped with red sand was partially blocking the playhouse entrance, but she eased her way past. Inside the auditorium, organised chaos greeted her. Men in builders' aprons were busy on the forestage and the musicians' benches had been moved to one side to make room for the wings, shutters, borders and other equipment usually kept backstage. Killigrew must be taking advantage of the closure to have some alterations done.
Nan could see no sign of the actor-manager and was forced to ask the overseer if he knew where Killigrew was. He had seen him earlier that morning, but not recently, and with a shrug he resumed showing a sawyer how to do his job. Careful not to trip over men or assorted obstacles, she made her way backstage.
The sound of voices and laughter grew louder as Nan approached the room where they kept the costumes. Her hopes rose only to sink again when she found not Killigrew but Lizzie Knepp and Sam Pepys.
"- his fee is a good deal more affordable than Lilly's," Pepys was saying, while the hand he had thrust down the front of Lizzie's bodice kneaded first one breast then the other. Evidently he had progressed from lurking outside tiring rooms. "When my portrait is finished you must come and see it. I'll make sure my wife is aw-" He flushed a bright red and whipped out his hand.
" Nan ! I was just showing Peepsie some of Lacy and Shotrell's costumes." Unflustered, Lizzie adjusted her bodice and gestured at a rack.
"Indeed." Pepys nodded. "It is remarkable how ordinary... shabby even... they appear from close to."
Nan nodded, willing to go along with the pretence if they were.
Lizzie smiled. "When did you return to London ?"
"This morning, an hour ago. And you?"
"Oh, we never left," said Lizzie with a careless shrug.
Mr Knepp was a horse-dealer, and must have been reluctant to leave his stock. Nan wondered if he knew of his wife's dalliance with Pepys. Still, what business was it of hers? "I'm looking for Killigrew," she said. "Have you seen him?"
Pepys shook his head.
"He's at court," said Lizzie. "Now that the King's returned, everything's back to normal."
And Killigrew is groom of the royal bedchamber. Of course. Nan massaged her temple. Her head was beginning to ache, and the sound of hammering didn't help. "I've changed my lodgings and wanted to leave him my address so he can send me word when the playhouse reopens."
"You shouldn't rely on it opening for several months," said Lizzie. "I'm not."
You have a husband to support you, Nan wanted to say but she contented herself with another nod. "Thank you. I'll leave a note in his office and trust he gets it. Until next time." She curtseyed. "Mr Pepys."
"Mrs Shelton." He bowed, and before Nan had reached the door, his hand was already creeping back towards Lizzie's bodice.
She found a scrap of paper, jotted down her address, left it in a prominent spot on Killigrew's desk, and left the playhouse, relieved to get away from the hammering. She was exiting from Playhouse Passage into Drury Lane when she saw a familiar face and came to a halt.
"Anne!" Today must be a day for greeting old acquaintances.
Anne Marshall smiled at her. " Nan . Is that you?" She glanced up the passageway in puzzlement. "Has the playhouse reopened?"
"Not yet. I went to leave Killigrew my new address. How are you? You look well." There was a glow about Anne that made her even prettier than usual.
"Thank you. I am well. Never better."
Nan scanned the busy street both ways but saw no sign of Beck. "Is your sister with you?"
Anne shook her head. "Still in Oxford . She's planning to return next week. Mohun, Lacy, Hart, Nell... we all ended up there, Nan . Along with some of Davenant's company." Her cheeks pinked and Nan wondered what had caused the blush. "You should have come too. The King kept us busy." Anne gave a rueful smile. "Plague or no plague, Charles must still have his entertainment."
"Is everyone well?"
"Aye." Anne became thoughtful and Nan realised she was eying the bubo scar on Nan 's neck. "But rumour reached us that you were near death."
"I was." But she had no wish to talk about that. She considered Anne's glow of happiness again and put two and two together. "Davenant's company, eh? Anyone in particular?"
"Sharp as ever." Anne laughed. "You'd learn of it soon, in any case. His name is Peter Quin, and he's waiting for me now at his parents' house in St Martin 's Lane." Her blush deepened. "We're to be wed next week."
"Next week?" Nan 's eyebrows shot up. "Then I hope you will both be very happy."
"How has Beck taken it?" The two sisters had always been rivals, for men and for attention.
"As you might expect." Anne gave Nan a knowing grin. "Sullen that she's not centre-stage. But she'll get over it."
A thought struck Nan . "Any news of Aphra?"
"Nothing since a letter Beck had from her three months ago. She was in Flanders then-"
A church bell's chime cut Anne short, and drew Nan's attention to something she had been unaware of until then - no longer were London 's funeral bells constantly tolling. A good sign.
"I must go," said Anne. "Or I'll be late."
"For your in-laws?" Nan pretended horror. "It would be unpardonably rude."
"Wouldn't it?" With a chuckle and a press of her hand, Anne hurried away.
Monday, 19th March 1666
"Was your errand to the Guildhall productive?" asked Phebe, as her father closed the front door behind him - a lull in customers meant they had the shop to themselves for once.
With an air of triumph, he pulled a moneybag from under his cloak and laid it on the counter. "It's not all I'm owed, though." His hung up his cloak. "And Hodges received every farthing."
That didn't seem fair. "Perhaps it's because they owe you twice as much."
"It was the going rate." He shrugged. "Bludworth and his aldermen are seizing on any excuse to delay payment. I suspect the pestilence has bled the City coffers almost dry."
Phebe frowned. "Can we defer our creditors for a little longer?"
He rubbed his jaw then nodded. "There's enough to settle the most pressing bills. The rest must wait. Everyone is in the same boat, after all. Even the Navy Board is having trouble recouping monies paid out on the King's behalf." He harrumphed. "Hodges tells me the King presented engraved silver plates to all Westminster physicians and apothecaries as tokens of his gratitude. I doubt Bludworth will do the same for us."
"Gratitude or guilt?" said Phebe.
"Who knows? At least the King has returned to us now," said Father, his tone wry. "And we mustn't judge those who fled too harshly, Phebe. Fear overmasters the best of us, and even those God appointed can be found wanting. Which reminds me. Do you remember Mr Williams of Cheapside ?"
"The apothecary with the vast stomach?"
His lips twitched at her description, but he nodded. "His shop reopened this week and he's unrepentant and full of excuses."
Phebe arched an eyebrow. "Such as?"
"As all his customers had fled to the country, he was at perfect liberty to follow them."
A bark of laughter escaped her and she covered her mouth. "A tall tale if ever I heard one."
"Aye." He smiled then sobered. "As apothecaries, our first duty is to our customers, even in their darkest hour. Williams failed in his duty. We did not." He gave her a fond look. "I don't often say it, but I'm proud of you, daughter. I wish your mother could see what a fine young woman you've become."
Her cheeks warmed at his unaccustomed praise. "Thank you, Father."
The door opened and their new neighbour, Mrs Woodroffe, entered, a wailing, red-faced infant in her arms. Phebe and her father exchanged a glance. The muffled crying that had been coming through the thin walls all night had been wearing on their nerves; heaven knows what it was doing to its parents.
"I'll leave you to deal with this," he murmured. With a nod to Mrs Woodroffe, he picked up the moneybag and disappeared into the other room.
"Meg won't stop crying and I don't know what's to do," cried Mrs Woodroffe.
Phebe sought permission to examine the wriggling baby, who she judged to be about nine months old, and gave a satisfied nod. That flushed face and swollen red gums pointed to one thing. "She's teething."
She opened the dried chamomile drawer, scooped some of its contents onto a sheet of brown paper, and gave it a twist.
"Teething!" Mrs Woodroffe's plump face slackened with relief. "I've heard it helps to lance the gum with a fingernail or a sharpened coin-"
"Then you've been misled." Phebe tried not to show her horror - babies had died from such treatment. "Give her some hard crusts to chew. And make her some tea from this." She handed Mrs Woodroffe the twist of paper. "Sweeten it with honey and wait for it to become tepid before giving it to her. It'll soothe her until the teeth come through."
"Hush, Meg." Mrs Woodroffe rocked the baby with one arm while she paid Phebe.
"And if it doesn't work," Phebe raised her voice above the infant's cries, "come back and we'll try something else."
"I shall. Thank you."
Mother and child returned next door and poor Meg's cries became thankfully muffled once more. Assuming Father was busy with his accounts, Phebe studied her list of tasks and with a sigh saw they had run out of tutty again. She was grinding some in the mortar when a shadow darkened the window, and seconds later the doorbell jingled.
"I'll be with you in a moment." She put down the pestle, wiped her hands on her apron, and turned to find a very familiar figure standing in front of the counter. " Nan !" Her jaw dropped and her heart pounded in her chest.
"The very same." A broad grin split Nan 's face, its warmth making Phebe glow with pleasure. Nan had filled out a little since they bade each other farewell outside the Cock and Pie, but she was still too thin.
"I thought you were in Madeley." Somehow Phebe's hands were holding Nan 's. "When did you get back? And why didn't you send word?"
"This morning. I've been travelling since Thursday." Nan gestured at the creases in her clothes, which from the look of them were hand-me-downs and several years behind the fashion. "Can't you tell?"
"Thursday? You must be exhausted." She still couldn't believe Nan was here and crushed the impulse to pinch herself.
"Coaching inns aren't the best place to get a good night's sleep." Nan led Phebe to the bench by the window, and they sat down, hands clasped, and facing one another. "It was a last minute decision or I would have written to you." She studied Phebe's face and frowned. "There are dark circles under your eyes."
"You should have seen me last month." Phebe gave a wry look. "It's been hard, but it's easing now Father is back."
"Is he well?"
"Yes, thank you for asking."
"Good." Nan hid a yawn then with a grimace, released Phebe's hands and got to her feet. "I can't stay, I'm afraid."
Phebe stared up at her in dismay. "But you just arrived!"
"I know, but I've more urgent errands to run before it gets dark." Nan glanced out of the window, then returned her gaze to Phebe. "We'll talk at length when we have more time. I give you my word."
With a sigh, Phebe stood up.
"I came to let you know I'm no longer at the Cock and Pie." Nan pulled out a scrap of paper and pressed it into Phebe's hand. "Don't lose that. I'm in Maypole Lane now." She pulled a face. "In a disreputable attic room."
Phebe closed her fingers tightly round the piece of paper. Nan's new lodgings must be very cheap, as it was lack of funds that had driven her from London in the first place. A thought struck her. "Has the playhouse reopened?"
"No." Nan was already moving towards the door. "And it's swarming with builders. Killigrew's having alterations done. Which means I must find another source of income. That's where I'm off to next: Lilly's studio in Covent Garden . Sam Pepys said something earlier and it gave me an idea."
"Lilly?" Phebe stared at her in puzzlement. "Are you going to ask him to paint your portrait?"
"No." Nan laughed. "To offer him my services as artist's model."
Surely the well-to-do ladies and actresses that frequented his studio sat for their own portraits, but what did Phebe know? "Oh. Then I wish you success."
"Thank you." Nan pulled the shop door open, paused, and looked back. "Write to me, will you, Phebe? Tell me where you want to meet and when. You're the only person I've really missed since I've been away."
"Am I?" A warm glow spread through her at Nan 's words and she smiled. "You can rely on me."
Thursday, 22nd March 1666
The Mitre in London House Yard. Saturday at two o'clock. Good. Huysmans should be able to spare her for an hour or so. Nan returned Phebe's letter to the table and stretched. Ow!
It had been a long day. She had thought sitting for an artist would be like acting, but she'd been wrong. Holding a pose for hours on end made her aware of muscles she didn't know she had. With a stifled curse, she lay back and tried to relax. The straw mattress was lumpy, but at least there were no bed bugs in it. And in the flickering candlelight, augmented by the coals glowing in the brazier, the ceiling stain didn't look quite so bad. She gazed up at it, her mind elsewhere.
As she had half expected, Lilly had turned her down. His recent renderings of Lady Castlemaine had been such a success, everyone was eager to have their portrait done. But.... "I've sitters aplenty, Mrs Shelton," he'd told her. "It's assistants I need - those who can help me turn out paintings by the score - not actresses. No offence."
"None taken." At least he knew who she was.
Her first choice denied her, Nan had done the rounds of other artists. Rejection after rejection made her hopes plummet, until she reached Jacob Huysmans in Westminster . She had left him until last because his studio was in King Street , and she had no wish to run into Sophia. But she was desperate, and for once, Fortune was with her. After a glut of portraits of Queen Catherine dressed as Diana, following which nearly every court lady insisted on being painted in the same manner, Huysmans had decided to paint a pair of landscapes. They were to feature rural figures - shepherds and the like - and, after scanning Nan from head to toe, he announced that her height made her a suitable model for both sexes. If she wanted it, for the next three weeks the job was hers.
She had left Huysmans in a gleeful frame of mind. Two days later, the novelty of sitting for him was wearing off. Still, she was able to pay for her food and rent with a little left over. And what did it matter that she ached all over, reeked of paint and turpentine, and must do it all again tomorrow?
Her thoughts turned to the approaching rendezvous with Phebe. Their last visit to the Mitre had been after the Exhibition of Rarities, hadn't it? It seemed a lifetime ago-
A knock at her door roused her, and with a groan she got to her feet, wondering who it could be at this late hour. Few people knew she lived here as yet. Could it be a messenger with a note from Killigrew? If the playhouse were due to reopen..... That could complicate matters.
She tugged open the creaking door, and gaped at the familiar figure standing on the landing.
"Hello, Nan ," said her husband. From his hairstyle, Venetian collar, and petticoat breeches, he was fresh off the boat from Antwerp .
"Sam." She resisted the urge to slam the door in his face. No longer the Ganymedes of memory, though the length of his eyelashes must still provoke female envy, this was an older, rougher, and more masculine incarnation. That could be because he was in desperate need of a shave, though, and there were puffy circles beneath his eyes. What on earth was he doing back in London ? And how did he know where she lived?
"If you've come to tap me for more, Sam, you're out of luck." She folded her arms. "I've barely sixpence to call my own, and I couldn't ask Sophia Hamilton for money even if I wanted to - things ended between us last Summer."
His lips curved in a rueful smile and she caught a glimpse of the boyishly handsome actor she had known. "I deserved that, I suppose. But I don't want anything from you. I'm playing the part of Mercury. Here."
He held out a letter, and after a moment she took it. It was too dark to make out the writing, so she made a quick decision. "Come in." She stepped back.
As Sam followed her inside, his gaze flicked around the attic room without comment. But then, he was no stranger to poverty himself. She wondered if his Antwerp lodgings had been just as shabby.
She held the letter close to her flickering stub of candle and saw it was unfranked and addressed to her at the Cock and Pie. The flowing hand was familiar. "Is this from Aphra Behn?"
He nodded. "She's in Antwerp . We bumped into one another several times, the last time just before we were due to take ship. When I told her we were returning to London , she asked if I could spare her friends some of the expense of receiving her letters by posting them in England . One was addressed to you."
"It would have taken ages to find me, if it ever did. Thank you." Nan cocked her head. "How did you discover my new address?"
"Killigrew, of course." He smiled. "Or rather his records. When those at the Cock and Pie proved ignorant of your whereabouts, I went straight to the Playhouse. Bit of a shambles there, isn't it?"
"They're widening the stage. 'We', you said. Is Joseph with you?"
"Aye. We've taken a small house in Southampton Street . He plans to set up a studio in the front room. Huysmans has made a success of it, so...." He shrugged.
Sam's lover wasn't in the same league as his celebrated countryman. And the London guilds had strict rules.... "Is he a member of the Painters-Stainers' company?"
Sam nodded. "The Antwerp branch."
"Ah. Even so, wouldn't it be better if he lowered his sights to start with?" An idea struck her. "Lilly needs assistants."
"Does he?" Sam shrugged. "I doubt whether Joseph will be interested, but I'll tell him. Thank you." He turned to go, then stopped and turned back. "I'm sorry for all the pain I caused you. There'll be no more of it, you have my word. I won't try to impose on you or blacken your name." He shifted his weight. "It was envy, Nan . I wanted what you had... have." He sighed. "Still do. Lord, how I miss the applause. But you weren't to blame. I know that now."
How long had she waited to hear those sentiments? So long, she had thought him incapable of ever uttering them. She arched an eyebrow. "What caused this change of heart?"
There was that rueful grin again. "Mrs Behn corresponds with several in the King's Company. She told me you came near to dying last year. Of plague." He examined his thumbnail. "Is that true?"
He raised his head. "It struck me how badly I'd treated you. And that if you died, I'd have to live with that guilt for the rest of my days." His voice had become a whisper. "I'm sorry I wronged you, Nan . Can you forgive me?"
It was a moment before she could speak. But her answer, when it came, came easily, much to her surprise. "With all my heart."
The tension left her husband's shoulders. "Thank you." And with a simple nod, he departed.
Saturday, 24th March 1666
Phebe followed Nan into the Mitre's depths, noting that the tavern had changed little since their last visit. That outing to the museum next door had been one of their first, she remembered. In fact, hadn't Phebe still been recovering from her mystery illness? Father had never got to the bottom of that, but whatever its cause, Phebe was convinced that somehow it had protected her from the plague. Thank God.
She did a quick mental calculation. It must have been November 1664. At that point, she had known Nan barely a month. And during the year-and-a half since, circumstances had conspired to keep them apart. Except for that month in quarantine. So why did Phebe feel as if she'd known Nan all her life? And why was she nervous?
Paget the landlord was as large-stomached and welcoming as ever, though he'd changed his wig for one that fit him better. "A private room, ladies?" he cried. "Of course. I believe you know the way."
There was no fiddle music coming from upstairs this time, and the room they had used previously was taken. With a glance at Phebe, Nan chose the one next to it. A fire burned in the grate, so they took off their cloaks made themselves comfortable, and regarded one another in silence.
Phebe cast around for something to say. "Have you eaten?"
Nan nodded. "And you?"
"Yes, thank you."
"Shall we just have some ale?"
It was Phebe's turn to nod.
The silence between them stretched and began to feel awkward, but she felt tongue-tied. After all this time? Idiot! The coals crackled and shifted in the grate, and in the distance she heard Paget telling his potboy to come and take their order.
"It's strange," said Nan . "I'm so used to confiding in you by letter, now we're face to face again, I find myself at a loss. You'd think after our time in quarantine, we'd feel at ease with one another."
"You too?" blurted Phebe. "Oh, thank heavens. I thought it was just me."
Relief made her giddy, and her laugh emerged more shrilly than she'd intended. Giving her a startled grin, Nan joined in, until they were both laughing, as much at as with one another. The arrival of the potboy, and Nan 's inability to string two words together in answer to his question, only made them laugh even harder. Rolling his eyes and with a resigned expression he waited for them to master themselves, then took their orders for ale, and departed.
"I haven't laughed like that since we were in locked in the Cock and Pie," said Nan , wiping the tears from her eyes. "It felt good."
"It did, didn't it." Phebe smiled at her.
"Especially after such a hectic week. Who knew sitting still could be so arduous? Even my aches have aches. How has your week been?"
"Busy." Phebe shrugged. "There are still cases of plague, but it's lessening its grip... in London at least." Colchester was another story. She wondered if Philip Hubland and his in-laws had succumbed to the outbreak there.
The potboy returned with their ales, peeking warily in the door before entering, and Nan threw him a coin. "It is just as well Huysmans employed me," she said, once he had departed. "That's my last sixpence until payday."
"Huysmans?" Phebe regarded her in confusion. "I thought it was Lilly."
"He sent me packing, as did all the others. But Huysmans was willing to swim against the tide, thank God." Nan sipped her ale. "I should be able to pay my rent for a few weeks. And perhaps by then, the playhouses will have reopened." Her expression became thoughtful. "You'll never guess who I found at my door last night."
Phebe spoke the first name that popped into her head. "Sophia Hamilton?"
Nan let out a startled laugh. "Once you wouldn't have dreamed of bringing up her name."
Phebe's cheeks warmed. "Well?" she prompted.
"No. I haven't seen Sophia since last year. Though every time I go to Huysmans' studio I fear I'm going to bump into her. Not her. Sam."
"Sam Shelton." Nan gave her a wry look. "My husband."
Phebe felt a pang. Of what, she wasn't sure. Nan had said she and Sam were no longer together. Had that changed?
Nan 's shoe tapped hers. "Sam still has no call on my affections." Her tone was gentle. "Especially now he's taken to wearing such ridiculous breeches." She gave an exaggerated shudder. "He's not the man he was."
"What do you mean?"
"My brush with death seems to have chastened him so much, he no longer wants to leech off me."
"Oh, Nan ! That's wonderful."
"Isn't it?" Nan grinned. "I can't tell you what a weight off my shoulders it is." She took another sip of her ale. "Sam and his Flemish painter have taken a house in Southampton Street ." Her brows knit. "Joseph aims to be the next Huysmans, but I fear that will be well beyond his reach."
As Phebe drank her own ale, she puzzled through what Nan had told her. "But if your husband didn't come to coerce more money out of you, what did he want? Joseph's ambitions hardly seem to merit a late night visit."
"Sorry. It was late because Sam had to track me down first. He brought me a letter from Aphra. She's in Antwerp ."
Nan 's lips twitched. "Is there another?"
Phebe remembered the excursion to Islington Fields with Aphra and the others, when that hateful young man had come after Beck Marshal with a sword and Nan had scared Phebe half to death. "How is she?"
"Good question. Her letter is jaunty and full of her latest adventures, but...." Nan shrugged. " Reading between the lines, I think she's fallen on hard times. And with things as they stand between us and the Dutch, now's not the best time to be penniless in Antwerp ." She took another sip of ale. "But enough of me and my friends. What have you been doing?"
In truth, one day at the apothecary shop was much like the next. But Nan 's interest seemed genuine, so Phebe told her of her recent visit to see Hannah and Graunt in Houndsditch, of the Woodroffes' squalling baby, and of the tedious evening she'd been unable to avoid spending with the Rundells in Bread Street . And if she embroidered events a little, to make Nan laugh, who could blame her? The Nan sitting next to her, laughing and healthy, was in stark contrast to the woman she had nursed in that hot, smelly room in the Cock and Pie.
Giving in to impulse, she took Nan 's hand. "I'm so glad you're here."
"As am I."
Phebe tried to interpret the expression in the blue eyes gazing back at her. Affection, she was sure of that. But what kind of affection? If the plague hadn't cancelled their picnic plans, would things between them have progressed differently? She had thought Nan was intending to kiss her at Barn Elms, and had been more than willing to let her... if only to compare Nan 's real life kisses with the ones in her dreams. But Fate had cast the two of them as nurse and patient and, when Nan was over the worst of her illness, as companions in adversity. And Phebe had been reluctant to jeopardise their existing friendship by asking for more, especially when a misunderstanding or refusal could have made what remained of quarantine awkward. But now we are free to come and go as we please. She opened her mouth to ask Nan if they could ever be anything more than friends, then changed her mind.
Nan glanced down at their clasped hands, but didn't remark upon them, only gave her a crooked smile. "You mentioned it's soon to be your father's birthday. Have you decided on a gift?"
With an inward sigh - part regret at her failure of nerve, part relief - Phebe allowed the change of topic. After all, true friends allowed friendship to grow and change at its own pace. "Not yet." She frowned. "My resources are limited, and he can purchase anything that takes his fancy himself."
"What about a book? We're in the right place for it." Paul's Churchyard, close by The Mitre, was the largest open space within the City and a bustling hub for stationers, bookseller, and bookbinders.
Phebe considered Nan 's suggestion. "The last one Father expressed any interest in was Hooke's Micrographia."
Nan 's eyebrows rose. "The one with the plate of a giant flea in it?"
"Yes. And far too expensive for my purse."
"Something cheaper then. Why don't we go and browse?"
Now? But it would save Phebe the time and effort of returning another day. "Are you sure that wouldn't bore you, Nan ? Watching me leaf through musty old books?"
"You've forgotten Hubert's Exhibition." Nan grinned. "Most of my enjoyment came from watching you examine the curiosities."
Pleasure tinged with embarrassment warmed Phebe's cheeks. "You're incorrigible."
Nan cocked her head and studied her. "Does it offend you?"
"No," said Phebe softly.
"Good. Drink up."
Encouraged by the exchange, Phebe set aside her half finished ale, and stood up.
Nan retrieved their cloaks and handed Phebe hers. "Here."
Once more Phebe found herself propelled out into the chill March air, but after the too warm tavern, it was refreshing. They joined the people thronging the stalls and shops in the shadow of St Paul 's stump of a tower. The churchyard was not as crowded as a year ago, but numbers were increasing - more evidence that London was returning to normal. She wondered who among the smiling faces all around them had survived the plague or lost friends and loved ones. We may not show it, but events have changed us all.
The cathedral bell struck three .
Nan took Phebe by the elbow and bent her head, so her voice carried above the hubbub. "Joshua Kirton always has the latest editions." She pointed to a shop in the northwest part of the churchyard, close by the King's Arms, and they directed their steps there, negotiating their way between stalls and customers.
Nan was about to hold open the shop door for Phebe, when two women chose that moment to make their way outside, and she was forced to step back. There was something familiar about the first woman, who was tall and plain-faced, but Phebe had no time to place her before her companion emerged. Nan 's face blanched and Phebe's heart sank.
The curled brown hair beneath Sophia's plumed hat had acquired extra ringlets on each side since last time, and those ridiculous moon and stars face-patches made fashionable by Lady Castlemaine dotted her cheeks. As she regarded Nan , a series of emotions flashed across her face, and Phebe thought she saw panic, guilt, yearning.... She was wondering whether Sophia planned to cause a scene in the middle of the churchyard, when Sophia's face went as still as Nan 's.
Sophia halted directly in front of Nan and drew herself up. With a surprised glance, her companion halted too. "Mrs Shelton," said Sophia stiffly. "You're returned to London , I see. I did not think to encounter you here today." She had yet to acknowledge Phebe's presence.
Uncivil as always.
"Mrs Hamilton." Nan 's tone was neutral. "Mrs Long." She nodded at the other woman.
Of course. Phebe had seen Jane Long onstage at the Duke's Playhouse once. A small part, in a play whose name she had forgotten. Sophia must have a predilection for tall actresses.
"I returned last Monday," said Nan . "I'd grown tired of Shropshire ." She paused. "I trust your family are well, Mrs Hamilton?"
"We are, thank you. But we must not keep you from your errand." Sophia indicated Kirton's bookshop then glanced at her companion, who nodded and prepared to move off.
Sophia had not enquired after Nan 's health, Phebe noticed. After all that had happened, was that all she had to say? A sense of injustice filled her and she willed Nan to say something, anything.
"A moment." But Nan 's words were aimed at Jane Long. "Any word from Davenant yet as to when the playhouses will reopen?"
Jane shook her head. "It could be some months yet."
Nan sighed. "Thank you."
That last exchange over, the two women took their leave. Nan watched them cross the churchyard and disappear from view.
"Are you all right?" asked Phebe, taking her arm.
"Aye." Nan smiled. "And glad that's over. It went off without raised voices, hair-pulling, or scratching too. Your presence, and Mrs Long's, and the fact we are in the middle of Paul's Churchyard must have kept her in check."
"Hair-pulling or scratching," repeated Phebe faintly.
"Sophia takes Lady Castlemaine as her model, and not just for the latest fashions." Nan chuckled. "Poor Mrs Long. I fear Sophia is going to lead her a merry dance."
"You're well rid of her," said Phebe, with feeling. "But she should have apologised."
Nan 's brows drew together. "For what?"
Phebe stared. "For refusing you in your hour of need and leaving you to die."
"You forget. She'd already entreated me to go with her to Kent . It was my fault I was still in London when plague came to the Cock and Pie. And my good fortune," she gave Phebe a fond smile, "that you were there to nurse me."
Phebe opened her mouth, and closed it again. Nan might be able to forgive Sophia, but she could not. Not yet, anyway. The woman was just so... Unlikeable . What on earth had Nan seen in her? She shuddered. No, don't answer that.
"Now." Once more Nan held the bookshop door open and this time no one blocked their way. "Shall we find your father a birthday gift?"
Monday, 5th April 1666
The auditorium was abuzz with talk and laughter as Nan made her way down the aisle. Killigrew's summons had raised her hopes high that the playhouse was about to reopen, but they dipped as she saw the stage remained unfinished. The pile of sand in the passage, though much reduced, should have warned her, she supposed, but why had he assembled his players? But she had no time to ponder the answer as on all sides familiar faces were turning towards her and hands were waving in greeting. Kynaston and Beck broke off their conversation at once and waylaid her, eyes alight with curiosity.
"You look well for a corpse, Nan ," said Kynaston.
"As do you." His looks were wearing much better than Sam's had. He hadn't changed a jot since she last saw him - nor had his spending habits, judging by his new doublet. "Who told you I was dead?"
"I may have misremembered the details." His shrug made her chuckle. "They said you were at Death's door. I am glad you didn't go through it." He grinned.
"As am I. It was too close for comfort. If it weren't for Phebe's care...."
"The apothecary's daughter who accompanied us to Islington fields?" He and Beck exchanged a glance.
Nan nodded. "A story for another time."
"The plague took a heavy toll on apothecaries," said Beck. "Is Phebe's father....?"
"He's well," said Nan . "In fact it was his birthday last week and I helped her choose his present." Phebe had invited Nan to join them for the supper too, but Nan 's nerve had failed her and she had claimed a prior appointment with Huysmans. She winced, remembering. From the look in Phebe's eyes - part scepticism, part amusement - she had guessed as much. Nan hoped Phebe wouldn't hold it against her.
Nan changed the subject. "You both look well. Your stay in Oxford must have agreed with you." Beck took the compliment with complacence and Kynaston preened. "How did Anne's wedding go?" Her prior appointment with Huysmans had, in that instance, been genuine - she was impersonating an Arcadian shepherdess at the time.
Beck's features softened. "Very well, thank you for asking. The food was delicious and my sister looked beautiful." Then she ruined the effect by adding with a sardonic curl of the lip, "She's now in a state of wedded bliss. It will pass soon enough, I dare say."
"I don't envy Anne her new relations," said Kynaston. "What a mob some of those Quins are when they're in their cups."
"Will he insist she give up the stage?" asked Nan . Frequently a husband, once he had bagged his actress, insisted she gave up the profession that had attracted him to her in the first place.
Beck shook her head. "One of the few benefits of marrying another actor."
"And a recipe for confusion, if ever I heard one," said Kynaston. "Mrs Quin sounds very much like Mrs Gwyn."
His gaze had become distracted, and Nan followed it and saw a smiling Nell waving at them. A first she almost didn't recognise her - Nell's figure had blossomed into a lush ripeness that every man in the room must be conscious of - but the vivacious face and flame-red hair were unmistakeable. No wonder Hart was hovering close by, looking possessive. Still together, I see.
Nell's group included Mohun and Lacy, and the young man at its heart seemed familiar. "Who's that talking to Hart?" asked Nan .
Beck glanced at him. "James Howard. Looks like his cousin Robert, doesn't he?" Her brow furrowed. "He and the others have been as thick as thieves for the past half an hour. I wonder what they're hatching."
"Has he written a play too?"
Kynaston nodded. "Though I doubt if it's a patch on The Indian Queen . And Killigrew can't be intending to stage it here, surely?" He indicated the unfinished stage.
Nan frowned. "But in that case what-"
Beck hushed them and pointed to the forestage, when the actor-manager himself now stood, clapping his hands for silence. "Let's ask him."
When all heads had turned in Killigrew's direction, and the hubbub had died, he began. "Welcome, friends and fellow actors. Welcome. We've been apart too long - though some of you," he gestured vaguely, "kept his Majesty well entertained in Oxford ."
"He kept us well entertained too," murmured Kynaston. "What a romp court is these days, Nan . Castlemaine and La Belle Stuart were both there. And numerous pretty actresses besides."
"You're wondering why I called you here with closure notice unlifted and the playhouse unfinished," said Killigrew, gesturing at the builders' equipment lying everywhere. A murmur of agreement greeted him. "It's to announce that, by royal command, the King's Players are back in business - though for the time being, only at court." Speculation rippled through the auditorium, and he nodded. "That's right. We're resuming performances at the Cockpit," he said, naming the private theatre in Whitehall . "From next Friday."
"Friday!" squeaked Kynaston.
Around the auditorium, other echoed his dismay, including Nan . It depended on the play Killigrew intended to stage, of course, but she hadn't looked at her parts in months, and she doubted the words would come easily.
Killigrew called for silence. "It's short notice, I know," he said, but his tone was unapologetic. "That's why our first performance will be an old staple: Volpone."
Beck let out a delighted cry, but Jonson's sly comedy contained no parts for Nan or Kynaston, and they exchanged a rueful glance.
"And after that, for a change of pace, The Traitor."
Nan breathed more freely. She'd had a decent role in that.
"Which should give us time to prepare a new work by Mr Howard, who has done us the honour of being with us today." Killigrew pointed at him and Howard flushed at finding himself the centre of attention. "The English Mounsieur is a splendid comedy, and its preparation will serve us in good stead for when the playhouse does eventually reopen. Thank you, Mr Howard." He clapped, and after a moment everyone took the hint and joined in.
"But how many parts does it have, and who will get them?" muttered Kynaston, speaking aloud what everyone was thinking.
"And now to the parts," Killigrew announced. "Dan."
The prompt man took his place next to the actor-manager, his arms full of ribbon-bound scrolls. "Here we go," said Beck.
"Mrs Gwyn and Mr Hart, you will be the leads: Lady Wealthy and Mr Wellbred."
"Nell?" murmured Nan , stunned.
Kynaston threw her a sympathetic glance. "She's come on in leaps and bounds since last year. Tragedy's still beyond her, but when it comes to comedy, especially opposite Hart.... They were the talk of Oxford , Nan ."
As the roles dwindled in stature, it dawned on Nan with a sinking feeling that not going to Oxford was going to have consequences. The balance of the company had shifted in her absence and reformed itself around Nell and Hart, and with no Sophia to whisper helpful suggestions in Killigrew's ear.... Was this how Sam had felt, when his value to the Company declined and roles dried up?
At last, much to her relief, she heard her name called and went up to accept her scroll. She had missed the character's name, but it didn't matter. Even if the part was minuscule, she would grasp it firmly with both hands.
Sunday, 20th May 1666
When the morning service at St Stephen Walbrook had finished, Phebe and her father emerged to find Nan waiting outside as arranged. He nodded a greeting, and Phebe even detected the beginnings of a smile. She was relieved and pleased to see his manner towards Nan softening. When she had first started meeting Phebe after church - to go for a walk, weather permitting - he had been distant and rather stiff.
"Give Hannah my regards, will you, Phebe?" he said.
"Of course, Father. I hope you get as good a dinner as we shall."
He gave her a wry look. "As do I."
With a nod of farewell, he set off towards Bread Street . Phebe watched him go. "He's going to the Rundells for dinner," she told Nan . "Thank heavens I had an excuse this time."
Nan grinned and tucked Phebe's hand in the crook of her elbow. "Good. I'm looking forward to seeing Graunt and Hannah again."
Hannah had told Phebe she was always welcome for Sunday dinner and hinted that Graunt would love to see Nan , especially as she had been unable to attend their wedding. But they were both so busy - Nan rehearsing and Phebe helping her father in the shop - today was their first opportunity to take up her invitation. As they walked, Phebe told Nan what to expect.
"The house reeks of Graunt's tobacco," she warned.
"I can think of worse things." Nan sighed. "Damp, for instance."
"Hasn't the landlord mended your roof yet?"
"No. Thank God the weather has been dry. Mind you, at present my room smells mainly of limewash."
Phebe glanced at her. "Are you going to let me see it when you've finished decorating?"
For several paces Nan didn't answer. "Did I mention that Huysmans has finished his first landscape?"
With a roll of her eyes, Phebe let her change the subject. "Have you seen it?"
"Last night. Not one of his best. The background figures are all too much like me."
Phebe laughed. They turned onto Threadneedle Street just as a nearby church bell struck the quarter hour. It was Sunday, the markets were shut, and foot- and road-traffic were both light, so they were making good time. "I'd like to have a portrait of you. It would have pride of place on my wall."
"Would you?" Nan 's eyebrows rose. "Your father might have something to say about that. And do you know how much they cost? Especially one painted by the likes of Huysmans or Lilly."
"Beyond the reach of my purse, I don't doubt."
"Perhaps if it were painted by your husband's friend - Joseph, isn't it? - it would be cheaper."
"Perhaps." Nan frowned in thought. "If you were willing to settle for a lightning sketch by Huysmans, done as a favour to one of his sitters...."
"Ooh!" Phebe gave her a hopeful look. "Do you think he might be willing?"
Nan smiled at her. "I can but ask."
They turned into Bishopsgate Street , walked towards the City wall, then passed through the gate and arrived in Houndsditch with ten minutes to spare.
"That one." Phebe pointed at the timber-framed house that was the Graunts'.
They took the steps up, and a beaming Graunt answered the door at Phebe's first knock, and ushered them inside. The reek of tobacco was fainter than she remembered and masked by a delicious aroma of well-roasted mutton. I hope that's our dinner. Her stomach rumbled.
Hannah was waiting in her sitting room, which had gained new curtains since Phebe's last visit three months ago. Where had the time gone? she wondered guiltily. The curtains weren't the only thing to have changed. As a smiling Hannah rose to greet them, Phebe noticed that her freckled face was fuller, her already sizeable breasts even larger, and there was a gentle swell to her belly that, unlike Graunt's expanding waistline, couldn't be ascribed to good food.
"You're with child!" Gladness for the cookmaid she now considered to be a friend washed over her.
"And don't I know it." Hannah threw her husband a wry glance as he took his place at her side. "For two months every meal has made me feel sick. Now I'm hungry all the time, and always having to use the chamber pot."
"Oh, Hannah." Phebe gave her a warm hug then sat on the sofa. "I'll ask Father if he has any remedies that might help you."
Nan took her seat beside Phebe. "A child on the way already?" she said. "Well, well! Graunt, you old dog."
The watchman smirked and Hannah regarded him fondly. Married life suited them, thought Phebe wistfully. Hannah has a husband, a house, and a child on the way, and I'm still living with Father above the shop.
"Dinner won't be long," said Hannah. "Mutton, done just as you used to like it, Phebe."
She roused herself from her introspection. Hannah's use of her Christian name still felt a little strange, but she was growing used to it. "I'm looking forward to it. And Nan could do with fattening up a bit."
Nan blinked at her. "Could I?"
Phebe nodded. "After your illness last year, you're still a little too thin for my liking."
" Your liking?" said Nan, sounding indignant, and Phebe's cheeks warmed until she saw the amused twinkle in Nan 's eyes.
"My wife's cooking will certainly remedy that." Graunt patted his stomach.
Hannah kicked him on the ankle, and he yelped and rubbed it better.
Their antics made Phebe chuckle. "That reminds me," she said. "Deborah has settled in well - I can't thank you enough for finding her for us - but could let me have the recipe for that brawn you used to make? Father fancied some the other day, and Deborah's brawn just wasn't the same."
Hannah looked smug. "Of course. Remind me to give you the recipe before you leave. How is Mr Bonnick?"
"Keeping busy. There are still too many cases of plague about for comfort. And if he isn't in the shop or attending a patient he's in Blackfriars at one of his Society meetings. He sends his regards." Phebe paused. "Talking of Deborah, have you thought of hiring your own servant now you are with child, Hannah?"
"See?" Graunt gave his wife a pointed look. "I have been trying to get her to hire someone," he explained. "We can afford it, but she insists on doing everything herself."
"You know what they say: if you want a job done well, do it yourself." Hannah sighed. "But perhaps in a few weeks, when I am even more tired and waddling like a duck...."
His satisfied grunt drew a frown, and after a puzzled moment he added a hasty, "You could never look like a duck, my dear."
"I should think not," muttered his wife.
Nan snorted with amusement. "I am sorry I could not come to your wedding," she said. "I was unavoidably detained in Shropshire ." Her understatement made Phebe wrinkle her nose, and Nan winked at her. " Phebe has told me all about it. I'm glad it went well." She paused. "Where are you working now, Graunt?"
"An infected house in Water Mark Lane ."
Hannah nodded. "Just round the corner. It's worrying to have the plague so close, but no place is safe, and it's convenient, isn't it?" He nodded. "This is Hal's sixth... or is it seventh house?"
"Seventh," he said. "I try not to get attached to those shut up inside, but it's not easy, and when they die...."
"He gets upset," Hannah finished.
When not if, Phebe noticed. "Is the mortality rate high?"
Graunt thought for a moment. "The only ones to walk out alive so far have been: you two; that fellow, what was his name... Collier; and a man in a lodging house in Charing Cross ."
Phebe looked wide-eyed at Nan , glad she hadn't known the odds at the time.
"What did you do before?" asked Nan .
"Before the plague? I was a carter, and I've the scars to prove it." He fingered his broken nose and scarred cheek, then took in the disappointment on Nan 's face. "How did you think I got 'em? Rescuing the King from Cromwell's men?" He grinned. " Got hit by my own cart when my attention wandered." He shrugged. "When the plague's gone, I'll go back to doing that, I suppose. Merchants always need their goods ferrying to and from market, don't they?" He scratched his jaw. "It doesn't pay as well as watchman, though. And we'll have another mouth to feed."
"We'll manage," said Hannah.
He threw her an affectionate look. "Aye."
"I must see to that dinner." Hannah got to her feet, and Graunt made to follow her, but she waved him back down. "Entertain our guests, will you?" She disappeared into the kitchen.
With a shrug, Graunt turned back to Nan . "Phebe told us of the 'welcome' you received in Madeley."
"Aye." She sighed. "Fear brings out worst in people. And the best." She gave Phebe a warm glance. "Even my aunt and uncle were lukewarm. If it hadn't been for Widow Goody...."
Her reluctance to talk of her adventures in Shropshire was obvious, and Graunt took the hint. "And now you've returned to London . What are you doing to earn a crust? I heard the playhouses have yet to reopen."
"I've been sitting for Huysmans," said Nan
The watchman's eyebrows shot up. "Dressed as what?"
"Venus, of course." Nan 's eyes filled with mischief. "Clad only in small, strategically placed pieces of cloth." His jaw dropped, and Phebe shook her head. "But the truth is so boring," Nan protested, then she sighed. "As a guide for the background figures in his landscape."
"Ah." Graunt chuckled.
"Apart from that," said Phebe, "she's been performing at Whitehall . In front of the King."
"Small parts in old plays," said Nan . "Though next week we are performing a new one."
And for the King's mistresses too?" Plays might not interest the watchman but court gossip clearly did.
Nan nodded. "The Queen hasn't been in the mood for plays since her mother's death, and Castlemaine is taking full advantage."
In fact Queen Catherine's mother had died months ago, according to Nan , but her health was so poor none were permitted to tell her until the doctors judged her well enough. Another miscarriage. Yet Castlemaine popped out the King's bastards as easily if she was shelling peas. Poor thing. Stranded in a foreign land, and married to a man who's constantly unfaithful. But unable to live apart, as Nan and her husband do, without provoking a scandal.
"Even though the court is in mourning, the King won't forgo his plays," continued Nan , her smile wry. "And Killigrew is more than happy to accommodate him."
Graunt leaned forward, his eyes gleaming. "Is Lady Castlemaine as lovely as they say?"
Nan grinned. "In appearance, yes, though black is not her colour, and for the present she must forgo her patches and face paint. But her nature has never been 'lovely', Graunt. Count yourself fortunate you're not the King."
"I wouldn't say no to his treasury," he said with a grin. Then he sat back, suddenly sombre. "Hannah and I are well suited and wise enough to know it. No need to fear on that score."
Nan gave him a warm glance. "Good."
The door opened, allowing in both enticing aromas and a smiling Hannah. Her efforts in the kitchen had left her cheeks flushed and her eyes bright. "Dinner is served," she announced. "Hal, will you bring our guests through?"
He stood up and straightened his doublet. "Gladly, my dear."
Friday, 13th July 1666
The problem with the King's private playhouse, thought Nan , regarding her reflection with a jaundiced eye, was that it had one tiring room and a small one at that. And currently it was a heaving mass of sweating tiring men and actors trying to remove costumes and makeup without putting someone's eye out.
"Ow!" Beck rubbed the arm Nan had accidentally jabbed with her elbow.
Kynaston crowded her from behind. "Make haste, Nan . It's almost midnight, and I should be somewhere else."
"As should we all." The lumpy straw mattress in her attic room was becoming more and more attractive. That was the other problem with the Cockpit-in-Court - the lateness of its performances. "There. Finished." She set aside the dirty cloth, and almost before she had vacated her chair, Kynaston had occupied it and begun to wipe off his own face paint.
""Well done, all," said Killigrew. He was standing in the open doorway, looking pleased with himself. "The King wants us perform The English Monsieur again for him on Monday."
"Again?" came a chorus of voices, some delighted, some not. Nan 's opinion lay somewhere in between. The pay for a repeat performance would be welcome, and, as her part was a mere ten lines, it could not be considered onerous. But standing around watching others perform was a boring, not to mention frustrating pastime.
"We have you to thank for this, Nell," shouted Mohun. "Hart too." The belated addition elicited a ripple of laughter.
"Thank Mr Howard and Mrs Wealthy," said Nell. "We did but act their parts." Murmurs of approval and disagreement greeted her self-deprecation.
"To a nicety," said Killigrew. "You and Hart spark so well off each other, I'm going to commission more plays with you at their heart."
He would wring every drop out of the winning formula until playgoers grew tired of it, thought Nan . And Nell and Hart's stars would climb even higher. She was glad for Nell but also a little envious of her good fortune. Nell had also recently received a King's warrant entitling her to four yards of scarlet cloth gratis . Whereas Nan had been forced to abandon her own King's Company livery in the Cock and Pie, and if she wanted a new red cloak to wear on court occasions she'd have to pay for it herself.
Though the forestage's flickering torches had hampered Nan 's view of the regal figure sitting on the raised dais at the rear of the auditorium, she'd have had to be blind not to notice Charles' interest in Nell. If it had been any other actress, Nan would have warned her that the King's approbation could be a double-edged sword. But Nell was her own woman and a force of nature besides. And whether Charles would act on his desire was another matter - for the present, his hands must be full with Lady Castlemaine and La Belle Stuart, not to mention his queen.
"Ahem." Killigrew regained their attention with a wave. "His Majesty has commanded us to attend him. Let's not keep him waiting."
Sighing as the prospect of bed receded yet further into the future, Nan finished making herself respectable and joined the column of actors trooping down the stairs.
"Will there be refreshments?" wondered Kynaston.
"We can hope," said Beck.
Nan stifled a yawn.
The door to the Cockpit's auditorium stood ajar, so Killigrew led them through it. They threaded their way between the gold-cushioned stools - a far cry from the hard benches in their own pit - and he mouthed, "Mingle. Flatter," to anyone whose eye he could catch. Plastering on an agreeable smile, Nan obeyed.
The King and his favourites gravitated at once to Nell and Hart, hiding them from view, but Nan found herself talking to the Earl of Manchester. After a few minutes of pleasantries, she seized the opportunity to ask him, in his role as Lord Chamberlain, if there was a date yet for the Bridges Street Theatre's reopening.
He shook his head. "Still too many cases of plague for comfort, Mrs Shelton. I blame this Summer heat." The elderly earl hid a yawn. "It will be towards the end of the year, I venture, if not later, before I can make such an announcement."
"The end of the year!" Her heart sank.
Then someone caught his attention and, raising one hand in acknowledgement, he excused himself. Alone once more, Nan scanned the room for a fresh quarry.
She noticed that Lady Castlemaine was talking to Hart. Recently there had been a spat between Charles and his chief mistress - she had embarrassed the queen in public, something he would not permit - and he had banished her from her Whitehall apartments. Resourceful as always, though, Castlemaine had managed to return after only three days. Now, she was keeping Charles sweet by occupying Hart while he flirted with Nell. From the dark looks she kept flashing in Charles' direction, though, it was something of a strain.
Something - the intensity of Nan's regard perhaps - had made the King aware of Nan 's interest in him, and with an arched eyebrow he beckoned her over. Wincing, she obeyed, and was relieved when Nell greeted what could be viewed as an intrusion with a friendly smile and a nod.
"Mrs Shelton, is it not?" said the King. "From the Parson's Wedding?"
"Indeed it is, Sire." Nan dipped a curtsey. "I am flattered you remember."
"It was a breeches role." Eyes dancing, he glanced at Nell. "I hope we shall see your legs... ahem, I mean, you, of course, in breeches soon, Mrs Gwyn."
The throatiness of Nell's laugh pleased him and startled those close by. For a moment the King basked in her attention, then he turned back to Nan . Without warning, his eyes widened and his brow furrowed. She followed the direction of his gaze and saw it was fixed on her ring.
"I once owned a ring the exact spit of that," he said. "Its plainness speaks of a time when need was acute and resources few." He held up his little finger, on which he wore a huge engraved ruby, and gave her a wry smile. "How came you by it, Mrs Shelton?"
Nan flashed back to that night long ago in a muddy Shropshire field. His hair might be greying now and hidden under a luxuriant black wig, but the dark eyes, narrowing with suspicion as the seconds passed, were the same. "A gift, Sire."
"From whom, Madam?"
"Will Jackson ." Aware of Nell scanning their faces, her eyes curious, Nan plunged on. "An odd fellow. Whoever had cropped his hair had made a poor job of it. His shoes were too tight, and his breeches squeaked."
The King's jaw dropped. "Ods fish! I little thought to hear the name Will Jackson spoken here tonight." His face cleared and he snapped his fingers. "The poacher girl I met in Madeley. Ha!" His shout of delighted recognition turned heads, but he was too busy raking Nan from head to toe to notice. "Even taller - we are almost of a height! And if the Parson's Wedding was any indication, still with a fondness for men's attire." The corners of his eyes crinkled and he gave her a full smile that she couldn't help but return in kind.
"Indeed, Sire. The poacher girl."
"That night, there was reward on my head of £1,000." Nell's eyes widened at the sum. "Did you know of it?" He studied Nan as if she were one of Hubert's curiosities.
"I did, Sire."
"Yet you accepted my ring instead." He shook his head in wonder. "And you have yet to redeem the pledge."
"I've come very close, Sire, over the years." She gave him a crooked smile. "Is my credit still good?"
He let out another shout of laughter. "Aye, Mrs Shelton. As long as I am King."
"In which case, may I wish you a long, happy, and healthy reign, Your Majesty."
"Thank you." The warmth of his smile heated her cheeks. "Even so, do not leave it too long - even I cannot live forever."
She nodded, and curtseyed, and then - just like that - the mercurial King had withdrawn his attention from her and resumed his conversation with Nell.
Nan 's part in the play was over, and she made her way with good grace towards the exit, resolving to tell Phebe of this encounter when she saw her on Sunday.
Kynaston came up beside her. "What was that about?"
She threw him a tired glance. "I'll tell you tomorrow. For now -" The yawn that emerged threatened to crack her jaw. "- I'm for my bed."
Sunday, 2nd September 1666
Phebe was exploring the royal menagerie with Nan , or at least a strange and exotic version of it. It now ranged far beyond the Tower walls; in fact London had become a vast plain, teeming with all kinds of animals and birds. She felt no fear, though, only curiosity. Nan was comparing Lady Castlemaine to one of the vivid pink flamingos wading in a lake and-
Something shook her by the shoulder. "Mrs Bonnick."
It was her cookmaid's voice and hand, she saw, as awareness of her surroundings returned with a jolt. "What is it, Deborah?" She blinked in confusion. "Have I overslept? Am I late for church?"
"No, Madam. It's just gone four."
"Four?" Phebe sat up, startled. "What on earth-"
"There's a fire in Pudding Lane . How you've slept through all this clamour and commotion I don't know. Can't you smell the smoke?"
Phebe gave an experimental sniff. Now that Deborah mentioned it, she could smell burning. And through the open window came excited voices and a muffled peal from a church other than St Stephen, whose bells she knew by heart.
" Pudding Lane ?" She threw back the thin sheet that was all the covering needed these hot nights and swung her feet over the side of the bed.
The lane in question was 300 yards to the east, but several streets lay between it and Walbrook. Those living closest would be fighting the blaze with fire buckets, 30-foot-long ladders, and firehooks retrieved from the nearest churches and halls. It might already have been extinguished. Phebe padded to the window. "Is Father awake?"
"He's gone to see what he can learn."
He wasn't alone. Dozens of people, in various states of undress, were huddled in the street, usually deserted at this hour on a Sunday, and she saw the Woodroffes talking to the Hotchkisses. Father wasn't with them, and she was turning to tell Deborah as much when she saw his slightly stooped figure hurrying up Walbrook towards them. He had been in such a hurry, he had gone out without his wig.
"There he is." Phebe put on her wrap and hurried downstairs.
"It's nothing that need concern us," were her father's first words, above the bell's jangle, as he pulled the shop door closed behind him. "Mayor Bludworth inspected the fire himself. He says a woman alone could p-" he caught himself, "put it out."
Bludworth's language had been coarser, thought Phebe, noticing the correction. "That's a relief."
"Where did it start?" asked Deborah.
"Farriner's Bakery. He swears the bakehouse oven was cool when he went to bed, but-" He lifted his hands and let them fall. "I'm going back to bed." He yawned. "You should too, Phebe. We must be up and about again in a few hours."
She thought of pink flamingos. By now, though, she doubted she would be able to get back to sleep or, even if she managed it, pick up the threads of her dream. Besides... Fire. In high Summer. In these cramped streets with everything so tinder dry. "Where would we go?"
"Eh?" said her father.
"If the fire were to spread to Walbrook and we were forced to leave. Where would we go?"
"It won't come to that." He walked through the other room to the stairs.
Phebe followed him. "But if it did? Who would take us in?"
He scratched his scalp - it would need shaving again soon. "The question has never arisen, Phebe. But if needs be, I'm sure the Rundells would. For a few days, at least." He started up the stairs.
A few days. Phebe watched him climb. Spending more than an evening in their company was unthinkable.
Deborah was lurking behind her. "Shall I gather some things together in a basket or a blanket? Just in case?"
Phebe pursed her lips then nodded. "It couldn't hurt." They went down to the kitchen together. "Basic provisions first?"
While Deborah gathered bread, cheese, and ale, Phebe scanned the kitchen, but her mind was elsewhere. Food is all very well, but shouldn't we also take things of value with us? Such as Mother's embroidery box. And Father's most precious volumes. And Huysmans' sketch of Nan .
Convinced Nan had forgotten about the idea, Phebe had been surprised and delighted when, last Sunday, out of the blue, Nan had presented her with the little picture. Huysmans had dashed it off in five minutes flat, apparently. But in a few brushstrokes, he'd somehow managed to capture Nan 's likeness and essence to a T.
But we can't carry much. Unless- "We'll need a cart."
Deborah looked up. "Shall I go out and hire one?"
Phebe hesitated. If the fire came to nothing, and she had squandered money on unneeded transport.... For the first time she understood why some women stamp their feet. "I don't know," she said, frustrated.
A banging noise, followed by shouting, wafted down to the kitchen, sounding as if it coming from directly outside. Phebe raised her eyebrows at Deborah and hurried upstairs. Peering out the shop door, she saw the source of the commotion was their neighbour's house. A young man, his clothes soaked and streaked with soot, was standing on the Woodroffes' doorstep, talking to Mr Woodroffe. He must have been fighting the fire.
Trying not to be too obvious about it, Phebe eavesdropped. She soon gleaned that the visitor was an acquaintance of Mrs Woodroffe's, who was urging her husband to gather up his family and their belongings and accompany him down to the river, where a boatman was waiting to ferry them to Southwark. After a moment, Woodroffe retreated inside, leaving his bedraggled visitor standing on the doorstep.
Curiosity got the better of her. "Pardon me, but have you just come from Pudding Lane ?" she called.
The man looked her up and down before answering. "Aye."
Cheeks heating - Phebe had forgotten she was wearing her nightclothes - she pulled her wrap tighter about her. "How bad is the fire?
"It's spread to Fish Street . The hay in the Star Inn's yard went up in smoke. It's this east wind - it's carrying sparks everywhere."
" Fish Street ?"
The man nodded. "It's heading downhill towards the river. Won't be long before it reaches St Margaret's. And after that...." He grimaced.
Phebe flinched. After that came London Bridge , packed full of wooden houses. "But the fire fighters-"
"-are having as much effect as if they had tried to piss it out." He reddened. "Sorry, Madam."
"What about the bucket brigades? And the new fire engines?"
He gave a shrug, "It's too narrow for the engines. They've dug up the cobbles and tapped the quills-" He was referring to the wooden pipes that carried water beneath the streets. "- but the water supply is down to a trickle."
Woodroffe's shout inviting him in interrupted them, and with a look of apology he vanished indoors.
Phebe turned and found Deborah standing behind her in the doorway, brow furrowed. "How much did you hear?"
"All of it. Shall I go and hire that cart?"
She nodded. "But be careful."
Deborah's jaw firmed and she clenched her fists. "I'm small, Madam, but I can take care of myself."
Phebe didn't doubt it. When the cookmaid had hurried away, she got washed and dressed, and returned to her task. Hands on hips, she surveyed the dining room shelves. The medical instruments and reference books Father had taken years to amass would cost him a fortune to replace, but they could take only the most precious. And what about that slim volume on the Tudor monarchs she had given him for his birthday? His voice interrupted her.
"I can't find Debor- What are you doing?" He was in his nightcap and gown.
"I sent her to hire a cart, Father. The fire has spread to Fish Street , and our neighbours are planning to flee. I thought we should follow their example, or at least be prepared to." She gestured at the items she had selected and placed on the dining table.
He frowned. "There have been fires in Fish Street before, Phebe. All were soon quenched."
A rumble of ironbound wheels and whinny of horses gave him pause, and he hurried through into the shop. Phebe followed him and found him peering out of the window at a line of carts heading up Walbrook, their drivers whipping the sweating horses to greater effort. Each cart was heavily loaded, and a roll of carpet and several candlesticks poked from the top of one. Phebe's stomach lurched. The exodus has begun.
Before either of them could speak, the shop door opened and Deborah came in. Her cheeks were flushed, and it was a moment before she could catch her breath. Meeting Phebe's eyes, she shook her head. "I tried, but there are no carts to be had. The Canning Street merchants have snapped them up to carry their goods north."
"What is wrong with everybody?" muttered Father.
Phebe clamped down on her unease. "Surely it could do no harm to ask the Rundells if they would be willing to provide us with refuge? As a contingency," she added.
For a moment she thought he was going to refuse, but he raised his hands and let them drop. "Oh, very well. If it will ease your fears. Deborah." He turned to the cookmaid. "Have you breath left to take a message to Bread Street ?"
She wiped her palms on her apron and nodded.
"Good. Do you know the Rundells' house?"
"Splendid. Please convey my regards to Mr Rundell. Tell him I'm reluctant to presume on our long acquaintance, but we may... stress 'may'... need to take refuge with him and his family. It would be for a few days at most, and would earn him my lifelong gratitude." Deborah's eyes were closed, her face a mask of concentration. "Ask him if that would be agreeable. Have you got that?"
She opened her eyes. "Yes, sir."
"Off with you then." He made shooing motions. "And take care. The City feels febrile this morning."
With a curtsey, and brief smile at Phebe, the cookmaid slipped out the front door once more.
"Thank you, Father."
Another church added its peal of bells to the others ringing in the distance, and he cocked his head. "Is that St Magnus?" The church in question stood at the foot of Fish Street , near the north end of the bridge. "Hm." His tone grew thoughtful. "I'll get dressed and assist you, Phebe. Without a cart, though, we must be discriminating." With that, he returned to his bedchamber.
Relieved, Phebe took stock. She was supposed to be meeting Nan after church as usual, but that was now out of the question. With Deborah otherwise occupied, though, she had no means to send word to her. If we go to Bread Street , I'll send word then. In the meantime, news of the fire must have reached those outside the City by now, and Nan could be relied upon to draw the correct conclusion and stay away.
Father, dressed and bewigged, rejoined her, and she had no more time to think of Nan . He was quick and unflinching in his decisions, and with his help, selecting what to take proceeded swiftly. But they had not been long at it when, to Phebe's dismay, he was called away. Two fire-fighters had been burned and were in need of his salves, and with a look of apology, instrument case in one hand, he vanished into the smoky morning light.
Once more, Phebe was on her own. An hour later, she was in the kitchen stowing comestibles in a wicker basket, when Deborah joined her.
"Mr Rundell says we may treat his home as ours for as long as we need."
Phebe smiled at her. "Thank goodness."
"Where's Mr Bonnick?"
"Treating burns. What's it like out there?"
"A lot of headless chickens." Deborah wasn't one to mince her words.
"Oh dear. Any more news of the fire's cause?"
"Aye. And all of it conflicting. Some swear it wasn't Farriner's bake oven that started it but Dutch fireballs. Others are saying it was the Papists."
"Would they set fire to their own countrymen?"
"Perhaps. It broke out in several places at once, they say."
Phebe blinked. "Did it?"
The cookmaid shrugged. "St Laurence Poultry's steeple is ablaze."
That church lay south of Canning Street and was nowhere near Fish Street . But what was it that the Woodroffes' soot-stained visitor had said about the hay in the Star Inn's yard going up? Ah. "It's this east wind," said Phebe. "It must be carrying the sparks far and wide. Oh, I wish father would hurry back."
As if on cue, the shop bell jangled, and she hastened upstairs and found him standing in the shop, his wig askew and his cloak singed. He set down his instrument case and took her in his arms.
"God Bless you, daughter," he said, his voice rough. "You were right to prepare for the worst. Nothing seems able to halt the fire's spread. I fear it's out of control." He turned his head as Deborah joined them. "The Rundells?"
"Will be glad to have us, sir."
Phebe felt his shoulders relax, then he released her and stood back. "Then the time has come." Decision taken, his manner became brisk. "Gather up your baskets and bundles, both of you. We must leave this place for Bread Street at once."
Monday, 3rd September 1666
Worry for Phebe filled Nan 's dreams with flames, and she slept fitfully and woke early. At least Bread Street was a safer distance from the fire than Walbrook. Phebe's note had arrived so late the messenger had woken the whole house in his efforts to deliver it. She hadn't chided him, though - she was too glad to receive the news. And Houndsditch lies outside the City wall, so Graunt and Hannah should be safe too. For now.
Thinking she might as well twiddle her thumbs at the playhouse as in her room. Nan arrived for rehearsals an hour early. She wasn't the only one. Actors packed the auditorium, all talking at once. She took a seat between Beck and Kynaston, who greeted her with smiles.
"As I said, the fire poses us no immediate threat " shouted Killigrew from the stage.
He was having to raise his voice, and Nan hushed those who were talking. It was understandable that the pall of black smoke hanging over the City had given everyone the jitters, but she wished they would be quiet and listen.
"But it does no harm to be prepared. I want a full fire bucket by every door and window, and the best of our props and costumes packed up and ready for transport. Only the best, mind you. I couldn't hire as many carts as I wanted, so we must make do."
"Snapped up by Charles and his panicky courtiers, I expect," said Beck.
"Don't forget the parts," yelled Dan the prompt man.
Killigrew nodded. "A good point indeed. Those of you who have them in your own custody, remember it's your responsibility to keep them safe."
Nan thought of the ribbon-tied scrolls lying beneath her bed and winced.
"I fear others must assist you, Mr Killigrew," shouted Hart, standing up. He had been sitting with Nell on the bench behind Nan , and she turned her head to look at him. "My services are required elsewhere. If the King and his brother can fight the fire in person, so can I."
Hart had once been a Lieutenant of Horse in Prince Rupert 's regiment, and from his proud bearing and the gleam in his eye, he saw this as an opportunity to be in the thick of the action once more. Nell regarded him with dismay but held her peace. "Who's with me?" he cried.
For a moment there was silence, then: "Me," came a ragged chorus of voices, some of them female. Around the auditorium, actors stood one by one, and Nan was unsurprised to see Mohun, who had also been a soldier in the Royalist cause and still used the rank of 'Major' sometimes, among them.
"My wife would never speak to me again," murmured Kynaston, and Nan exchanged a wry look with Beck. He was so rarely at home, his family could manage very well without him.
"Go, if you must," said Killigrew, with as good grace as he could muster, which wasn't much. "The rest of us will ensure you have livelihoods to come back to."
Hart gave Nell a consoling pat on the shoulder, then eased his way along the bench to the aisle and waited for the other volunteers to join him.
"I fear their desire to be centre stage will render some more of a hindrance than a help," said Beck, as the would be fire-fighters filed towards the playhouse exit.
Nan chuckled. "Harsh."
"But accurate," said Kynaston. "Thanks to Mayor Bludworth's incompetence, efforts to stop the blaze began in chaos and have continued that way. Though you'd never guess it from this morning's Gazette."
"Have they managed to print an edition?" said Nan , surprised. "I thought their premises had gone up in flames."
"What did it say?"
"That virulent plague has struck the Dutch fleet. That Louis XIV's new cannon burst during trials. And that our fleet took no harm from that fierce storm in the Channel on Saturday night... which means the reverse is true. Oh, and that a small fire has broken out in Pudding Lane ."
"Ha!" said Beck. "Williamson always did like to slant his reports."
Kynaston smiled. "I may have exaggerated a little. He went on to say that the King and his brother visited Queenshithe yesterday afternoon and were much affected by what they saw. So much so, in fact, that Charles has given orders that all means possible are to be used to quench the fire."
"That's something, I suppose," said Nan .
"Mm." He glanced at her. "That friend of yours in Walbrook. Is she-?"
"Phebe and her father have moved to Bread Street . I received word last night."
"Good. I fear she may have to move again, though. It's this strong wind, Nan . Until it drops...."
Move again? Her intake of breath drew curious glances. But now she too felt Hart's call to action. Her fire-fighting skills might be limited, but she had a strong back and two strong arms. An idea came to her and she stood up.
"Where are you going?" asked Beck, looking startled then dismayed. " Nan ! Surely you can't mean to fight the fire with Hart and the others?"
"No. I'm going to Bread Street . To help Phebe and her father carry their belongings wherever they wish to go."
Understanding filled her friends' gazes. "Then good fortune attend you," said Kynaston, and Beck nodded agreement. "Be careful," she urged.
"Thank you," said Nan , making her way along the row of benches. "I shall."
"Mrs Shelton," called Killigrew, noticing her progress. "Aren't you going to stay and help us protect the playhouse?"
"I am, Mr Killigrew," she called back. "But it must be later, I fear. For the present, like Hart, my services are required elsewhere."
Monday, 3rd September 1666
Phebe had gone to bed in Bread Street hoping the City would have returned to normal when she awoke. But as she and Deborah helped each other wash and dress, and then went in search of breakfast, the muffled peals of bells that had disturbed their sleep showed no signs of stopping.
The debate around the breakfast table left Phebe feeling even more out of sorts. Overnight, the Post Office in Cloak Street had burned down and the flames had reached the end of Canning Street . After much discussion the Rundells decided to join the throng leaving the City. To Phebe's shock, her father elected not to go with them. He had left his instrument case in Walbrook and was determined to go back for it.
Though she and Deborah both tried hard to dissuade him, he would not be deterred. "Then I'm coming with you," said Phebe at last. She could be every bit as stubborn as he was, as both he and Deborah soon learned.
In the sullen silence that followed their argument, Phebe had little appetite, but she forced herself to eat - who knew where their next meal might be coming from? Then she helped Deborah ferry their possessions downstairs and stack them in the hall with the Rundells' belongings.
"Start loading the carts," Mr Rundell was instructing his two servants as Phebe and Deborah joined the others in the parlour. He was standing with his wife by the window, his attention split between the servants and the two horse-drawn carts that had just arrived and were standing in the street outside. "When Frances and Sarah had chosen which dresses they wish to take, they'll bring them down."
Judging by the squabbling that had been coming from his daughters' bedchamber, that could take awhile unless he chivvied them, thought Phebe.
The servants scurried away to do his bidding, and Rundell glanced a query at Phebe's father, who nodded. "Deborah. Will you do the same with our things?"
"Aye, sir." Disapproval was still radiating from the cookmaid's every pore, but she kept her tone neutral.
"Are you certain you won't come with us to Moorfields?" said Rundell, after Deborah had departed. "We could always delay-"
"Delay?" said his wife sharply. "By all accounts, the streets are growing more crowded and dangerous by the minute. If it were just ourselves, perhaps. But there are our daughters to think of."
"Mrs Rundell is correct. As always." Father smiled to show he had taken no offence. "Leaving my case behind was my own fault, and no one else should suffer for it."
He glanced at Phebe as he spoke, and she took his meaning at once. "We've been over this," she murmured. "If danger threatens, two heads are better than one. And my place is by your side." Besides, having heard so much rumour and speculation about the fire's nature and spread, she needed to see how things stood for herself.
He shook his head. "Your place is with Deborah, guarding our possessions."
"There are so few she can manage them on her own. Besides, leaving your case was as much my fault as yours. I should have made sure you had it before we left." Haste and distraction had been their downfall.
They locked gazes, and her father's shoulders sagged. "Very well."
"Can't you replace the case and its contents?" asked Rundell, raising his voice above the shouts and the scrape and clatter of goods being carried out to the carts.
Father shrugged. "My wife gave it to me." The catch in his voice, even after all these years, made Phebe take his hand. He returned the pressure then released it. "We should be well away from Walbrook before the fire poses any real risk. And we'll join you later at Moorfields."
Only the other day, Nan had been talking of taking Phebe to see the puppet show there. Nan . She should have received Phebe's letter by now. At least Phebe didn't have to worry about her safety, thank heavens, or that of Hannah and Graunt. But Moorfields was vast, and if it were crowded with refugees.... "How shall we find you?" she asked.
Rundell's brow creased, and he looked at his wife, who also seemed at a loss.
Phebe thought for a moment. "If you piled up your belongings and draped something colourful over them...."
Rundell snapped his fingers. "That red fabric I brought home from Bearbinder Lane last week."
Phebe's father nodded. "It's settled then. When we reach Moorfields, we'll look for something red." He took in a breath and let it out. "It's time, Phebe. We must go."
"Good fortune go with you, George." Rundell held out his hand, and her father shook it.
"And you. And once more, my grateful thanks for your hospitality." His glance included Mrs Rundell. "Until Moorfields then."
"Aye," said Rundell gravely. "Until then."
Phebe and her father retrieved their cloaks, and made their way outside. By the look and feel of things, it was going to be another fine, hot day, but a film of ash obscured the rising sun and the reek of smoke was much stronger than it had been.
To her amusement, Deborah had taken charge of loading the carts - that slight figure masked an iron will - and the drivers were observing the servants' panting efforts, while they puffed on their pipes and soothed the horses. Seeing Phebe and her father, Deborah broke off what she was doing, wiped her hands on her apron, and hurried over.
"We're going now," Phebe told her. "Please take care of yourself."
"And our belongings," said Father, shifting from one foot to the other. "Thank you, Deborah."
He started off up Bread Street and Phebe gaped after him. "Wait a moment!"
He looked back, frowning and fidgeting, but halted. "Be quick."
Deborah's dark eyebrows rose and she and Phebe exchanged a glance. "You're not really going back to Walbrook with him, are you?" asked the cookmaid.
Phebe nodded. "You know how distracted he gets - I don't want him doing anything foolish." She bit her lip. "But I feel guilty for leaving you."
Deborah shrugged. "I'll be with the Rundells, won't I?" She checked to make sure no one was listening and lowered her voice. "Don't leave it too long, Madam. Or I might not be able to stop myself from giving those moonfaced girls a slap."
Phebe chuckled. "I won't." With a last apologetic glance and a wave, she hurried after her father.
Retracing their steps of last night, they walked north then turned east onto Cheapside . Phebe had hoped the flood of refugees might have lessened overnight, but it had got worse. Though the widest street in London, Cheapside was every bit as crowded as during the annual Lord Mayor's Pageant, and sedan chairs jostled with horses, hackney carriages, and carts. The vast majority of people were on foot, and most carried heavy bundles or pushed handcarts. One old man had even enlisted the services of an ancient, braying donkey to carry a mahogany table. The mood was very different from that of the pageant, though. Some people were weeping or in hysterics.
Almost at once Phebe and her father found themselves fighting to make headway. Everyone and his dog was heading in the opposite direction, and the ominous orange glow in the south-eastern sky and flakes of ash landing on cheeks and clothes left no doubt as to the reason. She wiped a dark smut off her sleeve but managed only to make a smear. She must be mad to be heading towards the fire.
"Stay close," shouted her father above the din.
Head down, shoulders hunched, he barrelled his way through, and Phebe took a breath and copied him. It was a gruelling business. This must be how salmon feel when returning to their spawning grounds . She hoped the going would be easier once they turned off Cheapside .
Raising her head for a moment to ease the ache in her neck, Phebe caught sight of a small group of horsemen in the distance. From their fine cloaks, extravagantly plumed hats, and erect bearing they were courtiers. The rider at the front surveying the scene seemed vaguely familiar. The King? But his curling wig was a light brown. When she was next able to lift her head, the horsemen had disappeared.
"Almost there," Father shouted.
He was pointing to his right, so she forced her way in that direction and followed him off Cheapside into Bucklersbury. There, the press of people was a little less, and they took a moment to catch their breath. The steeple of St Stephens Walbrook, visible now above the rooftops, was still intact, she saw with relief. Pray God, their shop was too.
A perceptible rise in temperature and increasing amounts of ash settling in her hair and underfoot made her uneasy. To take her mind off it, she told her father of the riders. "Was it the King?"
"From your description, the Duke of York." He pulled a face. "But whether he's here to help put out the flames or to protect his fellow Papists.... Ready to go on?"
They wove their way along Bucklersbury between dozens hurrying in the opposite direction. The apothecary shops that had been open for business yesterday were shuttered and bolted, as were the houses, including Mrs Compton's - she and her foul-breathed husband had friends in Southwark; perhaps they had gone there. They were approaching the junction with Walbrook when the ground trembled, and there came a distant rumble, followed by shouts and shrieks of alarm. Pulse racing, Phebe slowed.
"A building must have collapsed or been pulled down," called her father. "It will be but the first of many. Come on." He set his jaw. "No time to waste."
They hurried down Walbrook towards the Turk's Head sign that Mother had always disliked - it was rude to stick out one's tongue - and Father fumbled open the shop door. The first thing that met their gaze when they stepped inside was the errant instrument case. It was sitting on the floor beside the counter. How could they have missed it? wondered Phebe, as, with a triumphant cry, he pounced on it and cradled it in his arms.
His quest completed, his expression became thoughtful. "Now we are here, perhaps we could -"
"No, Father," she said firmly. "'No time to waste.' Remember?" Thank heavens she had come with him, or Lord knows how long he would have lingered
His face fell but he nodded. "You're right, of course." He gave their surroundings a wistful glance. "To Moorfields then. And let us pray that the fire... and God... preserve our home so we may return here soon."
She nodded. "Amen."
He pulled the shop door closed behind them and locked it, and they retraced their steps up Walbrook and Bucklersbury. The fire behind them, they could afford to walk rather than rush, and Phebe felt a sense of relief.
"The quickest way will be up Old Jewry."
Phebe pictured the route to the northern stretch of the City wall, and nodded. "And then up Coleman Street ?" That should bring them to Moor Gate, which opened opposite Moorfields.
He shifted the heavy case to his other hand and glanced upwards. "Aye."
She followed his gaze to the dark clouds massing above them and grimaced. "I hope that's smoke and not storm clouds. If we're to sleep under open skies tonight, I don't fancy been rained on."
He stepped aside to allow a family of four, laden with bundles, to pass; the man's eyes were red-rimmed, his face and hands grimy with soot. "Perhaps Mr Rundell will have made other arrangements by the time we get there. We can but hope."
She nodded. With luck, today would see the fire brought under control, and they could return to Walbrook and normality. In the meantime, she must remember to send word of her whereabouts to Nan . What tales of her adventures Phebe would be able to tell her when next they met!
They reached Cheapside once more and came to a halt. Old Jewry was on the other side, so they must cross, but the press of refugees heading west was as dense as ever and had acquired a frenetic quality. With no one in authority to keep order, people were elbowing aside those who stood in their way and rounding upon anyone who looked the least bit foreign. Her jaw dropped as two men leaped up onto a cart, snatched the reins from its protesting driver, and tipped him over the side.
"Come on!" Father took a tight grip on his case and hooked his other arm through hers. "It's every man for himself."
They lowered their heads and battled their way across, doing a little elbowing of their own, then paused panting on the far side to take stock. Apart from a torn sleeve (Phebe's) and a bruised shin (her father's) they had escaped unscathed.
"So many people!" said Phebe, amazed and puzzled. "If everyone is fleeing, who is staying to fight the fire?"
"Who indeed?" He set off once more and she hurried to catch up.
To her relief, Old Jewry was quieter and narrower, and as they were going in the same direction as everyone else, less dangerous.
"If that fool Bludworth is still in charge," her father muttered, as they passed St Olave's church on the left, "the City's as good as lost."
"Perhaps that's what the Duke of York was doing. Determining how best to fight the blaze."
He grunted, and pulled Phebe out of the way of a galloping rider, before sending a dark look after him. "If so, I hope he has the good sense to mobilise the militia and trained bands."
A loud whoosh followed by a crackling noise made them both look up, startled. St Olave's steeple was on fire.
"Damn this wind!" cried her father. "Soon every church in the city will be aflame."
"Even St Paul 's?" The sheer massiveness of its stone walls must surely keep it safe.
He shrugged. "Let's hope not."
They left Old Jewry and started up Coleman Street . The expanse of grey at the far end was the City wall, and from the press of people, horses, and carts in front of it, the gate around the corner had become a bottleneck. She hopped to one side to let a horse and cart pass, and it rumbled on to join the jam.
"We may be a while getting through Moor Gate," said Father, with a frown. "Those bringing their carts for hire into the City must be hampering those trying to leave."
As he spoke, a group of men in uniform emerged from the press of people. They were laying about them with fists to force their passage; some carried leather buckets and ladders, others firehooks and other items of equipment that Phebe couldn't make out. Once clear, they set down their burdens at the side of the street and scurried around, responding to gestures and shouted directions from two courtiers apparently in charge.
"A trained band!" Father swapped his case to his other hand. "They must be setting up a fire post. York 's doing, I'll wager - Bludworth wouldn't have the wit."
Phebe stared. "Are they expecting the fire to spread this far north?"
"Better safe than sorry."
One of the uniformed men had stopped what he was doing and was gazing in their direction. He bellowed something and waved his arm from side to side. "What on earth is he -?"
Belatedly she registered the clatter of hooves and rumble of wheels. She looked around and saw a cart hurtling straight towards her, its driver's seat empty, reins trailing, its horse rolling terrified eyes-
Father's hand tugged her to one side barely in time, and the horse thundered past her so close she felt the heat of its breath and flecks of hot spittle spattered her cheeks.
She was turning to thank him, when his eyes widened and the colour drained from his face. With an inarticulate exclamation, he grabbed hold of her once more and tried to swing her clear of the overloaded cart now bearing down on them. But the pillar top of a harp jutting several feet beyond its side hit him with such force it knocked him off his feet. It also caught Phebe's temple a glancing blow.
Pain spiked through her and, after a flash of dazzling brightness, her vision greyed. Helpless and despairing, she tumbled into darkness.
CONTINUED AND CONCLUDED IN PART 3