Copyright © 2015 by Barbara Davies.
Warnings - See part 1.
(Email: email@example.com )
Monday, 3rd September 1666
The smell of smoke grew stronger as Nan hurried up the hill to St Paul 's. Ludgate had been even more congested than usual, clogged with fleeing carts and carriages, and it was the same story in Paul's Churchyard, which now resembled a disturbed ants' nest. Residents from the adjacent houses were piling up their furniture inside its stone walls for safety, and traders were carrying the goods from their stalls and shops into the cathedral's crypt. She caught sight of Kirton and his apprentice staggering under the weight of several heavy volumes, and remembered her last visit to his bookshop. Then, the most urgent thing on her mind had been helping Phebe to find a suitable book for Mr Bonnick's birthday. It seemed a lifetime ago.
From this vantage point she could see much of the City. Louring black clouds and a baleful red glow to the southeast gave everything a dreamlike quality.
Something nudged her in the ribs, and she turned, indignant.
"Sorry," said one of the four men manoeuvring a heavy printing press, of all things.
Hurriedly she stepped aside. Time to go.
Exiting from the churchyard into Watling Street , she saw a group of men carrying water-squirts and axes. It set her to wondering where Hart and the other actors had got to. Had they joined the Duke of York's men? She had seen some of his troops at Temple Bar setting up a fire post but no sign of them since. The Duke's priority would be to stop the fire from spreading west beyond the walls, she supposed, but it seemed hard on the City. No matter. Her concern was closer to hand and more personal.
As she hurried to Bread Street, she mulled over what assistance she could render the Bonnicks - the Rundells must take care of themselves - and realised it was shamefully little. She was another pair of hands, but when it came to providing refuge.... Her Maypole Lane room was too small for three, though it would house two at a pinch. I could bed down on the playhouse floor, if I charm the key out of the doorman and sneak in after dark. But that was no long-term solution. Graunt and Hannah might be willing to assist if made aware of the Bonnicks' plight, but Houndsditch lay beyond the wall to the northeast, and for the moment the fire had cut off any direct route. Hm. A compromise seemed best. She would offer her room to Phebe and her father for the night, and on the morrow escort them to the Graunts' house.
At the crossroads of Watling Street and Bread Street she hesitated, unsure whether to turn north or south. Then she remembered a reference Phebe had made to the Rundells living close to Cheapside . North it is. Most of the well-to-do houses and shops that lined both sides of the street were deserted, their shutters closed, but outside one a few yards further along stood a half-loaded cart, its driver smoking while he kept his horses company. It would be too much to hope that particular house belonged to the Rundells, but perhaps the man could direct her.
One of the horses tossed its head at Nan 's approach. "Easy now," soothed the driver, frowning at her.
"I'm trying to find my friend," said Nan . "She's staying with Mr and Mrs Rundell. Do you know which is their residence?"
His frown eased. "No. Mr Tinniswood might." He jerked his thumb towards the house he was parked outside. Its front door was ajar. "But he's busy at the moment."
"Could you ask him anyway?"
"And leave the cart unattended?" He shook his head. "Ask him yourself. You can't mistake him - he's the one with three chins." He chuckled.
Nan thanked him and approached the open door. From within came the clatter and scrape of furniture. "Right side up a bit," came a man's voice. "I said right . Watch out!" An unmusical clang echoed through the house. "A pox on it! Why can't you listen? That spinet was my mother's. Now it's damaged and-"
"Excuse me." She poked her head into the gloomy hallway and found it deserted. "Excuse me," she called again, louder. "Can someone help? I need directions to the Rundell residence."
"Is that a woman's voice?" asked someone upstairs. "It sounded like a woman."
"How am I supposed to know? What's she doing here?"
A man's florid face peered over the banister. "Do I know you, madam?" Three chins wobbled as he spoke.
"No, Sir. I'm searching for the Rundells. Can you furnish me with directions?"
"Rundell the draper? Two doors along." The face disappeared, and she turned to go. "You won't find them there, though." The face had reappeared. "Already gone. Packed up and left an hour ago."
"Gone?" repeated Nan , feeling stupid. Of course they had. What on earth had she been thinking? That Phebe could not manage without her? "Do you know where to?"
"Haven't the faintest idea." The face disappeared and this time didn't reappear. The scraping, clattering, and shouted directions resumed.
"Thank you," she called.
"Any good?" said the cart driver, when she emerged into Bread Street once more.
"Two doors along. But they're not there."
With a shrug, he went back his pipe.
All sense of urgency had left her, and she stood, undecided what to do next. It would be some time before the fire reached here - always supposing the Duke's men didn't succeed in stopping it first. Might as well inspect the house, as I'm here. They could have left word.
The Rundell house was one of the largest and best maintained in Bread Street , though flakes of ash had smudged the pristine window ledges and doorstep. Business must be thriving. She was frustrated to see that all the windows facing the street were shuttered, and no note had been pinned to the bolted front door. But in the narrow passageway leading along one side of the house, she found a small shutterless window. Face pressed to the glass, she discovered she was peering into the pantry. Everything was in disarray, and gaps on shelves and tabletops spoke of a hasty departure. But to where?
Slowly, she retraced her steps. When Phebe was settled, she would send word of her whereabouts; all Nan had to do was wait. But it would be hard not knowing until then that she was safe. Chiding herself for her selfishness and lack of patience, she resolved to atone by helping someone who had asked for her help - Killigrew. But as she was turning away, a fluttering movement caught her eye. The strong east wind that was fanning the flames had caught the edge of a scrap of paper trapped beneath a cobblestone left lying on the front doorstep.
Why would someone place a cobblestone where people are likely to trip over it?
She yanked the scrap free and scanned the single word someone had scribbled on it. Moorfields .
Tuesday, 4th September 1666
Phebe blinked and screwed up her eyes against the light, which had a strange orange cast to it. Where was she, and why was she lying on her back on something hard? If only her surroundings would stop moving around long enough for her to make sense of them. It didn't help that her vision was blurred and kept expanding and contracting in time to the throbbing in her head. What had happened? Hadn't she and her father been-?
A distorted, goblin face loomed over her, and she shrank from it in terror. Or is it a demon and this Hell?
"Strewth! This one's alive." The voice was muffled by the ringing in her ears. "Help me lift her."
Hands took hold of her by her ankles and wrists and her world lurched then steadied again. She felt dizzy and nauseous and her vision narrowed until it was like looking down a tunnel. "Help," she said, but no sound emerged. Then total blackness engulfed her once more.
When awareness returned, Phebe had no idea how much time had passed but her head still throbbed. From the erratic rocking motion and clip clop of hooves, she was in a vehicle of some kind. The smell of smoke was almost choking, and she could hear a strange crackling noise. She could also hear distant booms and a rhythmic thud and scrape that reminded her of picks and shovels.
Matters closer to home claimed her attention - something hard was digging into her back. Before she could investigate and dislodge the culprit, though, there was a tremendous jolt, accompanied by a splintering sound. Someone let out a stream of invective, but Phebe had no time to interpret it, for the jolt had aggravated her head, and it was now throbbing so badly she was convinced she was going to die of it. Oh God, she prayed. Someone. Anyone. Please help me.
This time, when the darkness came swooping in, she welcomed it as a long lost friend.
Tuesday, 4th September 1666
"That's the last of the prompt books." Nan closed the chest's lid and stood back. "All yours."
While the carter's boys manhandled the heavy chest out of the auditorium to the waiting carts, she wiped her hands on her skirt and mopped her brow. She had worked with the others to empty the Playhouse of its valuables until late last night and resumed at first light, and the bruises on her hands and arms had bruises of their own, but she thought it unlikely Killigrew was finished with them yet. With Hart and his volunteers away fighting the fire, it was all hands to the pump. An apt metaphor.
"Here." A hand holding a cup of small ale appeared in front of her, followed by its owner. "You look as if you could use it," said Beck.
"Bless you." Nan took a sip and wiped her mouth on the back of her hand. "This is thirsty work."
"And tiring." Beck stifled a yawn. "We've just sent off the last of the costumes. Though why we are bothering to save Gloriana's dress-" She shrugged.
Nan knew the costume in question - not that she had ever had cause to wear it. Used in The Faerie Queen, its fabric was threadbare, its seams in constant need of restitching, and it reeked of camphor and of too many sweating leading ladies... and men.
As if on cue, the door opened and Kynaston came in and made a beeline for them His eyes were red-rimmed, his face smeared with soot, and his clothes singed and in disarray.
Nan 's eyebrows rose. "I wondered where you had got to."
"Behold the hero, back from the wars." His teeth white against the grime, he grinned and struck a pose.
"You didn't!" said Beck.
"Didn't your wife object?" asked Nan .
Kynaston gave her a quelling glance. "I gave a good account of myself, too, though Hart doubted me at first." His indignation made Nan smile. "But fighting fires is hard work, and there's precious little to show for it. Until this wind drops or shifts direction - both, for preference - it's a losing battle."
His words reinforced Nan 's relief that Phebe had already escaped to Moorfields. It was strange she hadn't yet sent word of her safe arrival and plans for the future, though. Nan frowned, uneasy, and told herself not to be foolish. Phebe was probably just occupied with other things. She might be helping her father to treat the burns some of their fellow refugees must have sustained. It was the sort of kindness that came naturally to Phebe.
Kynaston knuckled his eyes and yawned. "The King is fortunate he still has a brother. For a while the flames trapped the Duke and his men." He shook his head. "And now Bridewell is aflame."
"What of the inmates?" said Nan , wondering if they'd been left to burn.
He gave her a wry look. "What of them?"
"You mean it's crossed the Fleet already?" said Beck.
He nodded. "We pulled back to the Strand . Somerset House is now providing shelter for the Duke's men and their barrels of gunpowder."
"It's as well the King's mother vacated it last year," murmured Nan , picturing the aristocratic Henrietta-Maria's reaction to such an invasion had she still been in residence.
Beck's eyebrows shot up. "Gunpowder?"
"Aye," said Kynaston. "They've started blowing up houses to create firebreaks. It was taking too long to pull them down with fire hooks."
That explained what Nan had taken to be rolls of thunder. As if on cue, there came another series of distant booms. Hm. Could the fire that had seemed so distant now pose a threat to her lodgings? She headed for the playhouse exit.
"Where are you going, Nan ?" called Beck after her.
"Where indeed, Mrs Shelton?" echoed Killigrew, who had appeared ahead of her. "There's still work to be done."
"And I'll be back to help you do it," she told him. "But I must retrieve my parts from my lodgings. Kynaston tells me the fire is advancing faster than expected and I daren't risk leaving it until later."
Mention of the precious scrolls tipped the balance. "Then of course you must go," said the actor-manager.
Nan needed no further urging.
As she emerged into Playhouse Passage, the acrid smell of burning met her, and it felt several degrees warmer than it had. Dark clouds massing in the skies above made it seem more like twilight than just after noon, and when she turned into Drury Lane and saw only a few street away the ominous red glow she had last seen in the City, her heart plummeted. If she were of a superstitious bent, she might be tempted to think the fire had followed her home.
A boom accompanied by a judder beneath her feet sped her steps towards her lodgings. It was the work of a moment to retrieve the scrolls, wrap them in a pillowcase, and tuck them under one arm. Her mission complete, she made her way downstairs and was turning to retrace her steps when curiosity got the better of her and she turned the other way. Since she was here, she might as well see for herself.
At the end of Maypole Lane she halted and gaped out at the Strand . It was just as well no carriages were waiting at the hackney stand on the far side - a mass of humanity rivalling those who had witnessed the King's return was streaming west, parting to avoid the maypole before rejoining. The mood and appearance of the crowd was very different from six years ago, however. Amongst their number were soot-stained members of the militia, the bandages around their heads and hands bearing witness to their efforts to fight the fire.
She studied the faces streaming past and saw stoicism, hysteria, fury, amused contempt, and avarice that made her tighten her grip on her scrolls. The pickpockets will be hard at work. But before long, individuals had blurred into a single fleeing human tide, and with a sigh she turned and trudged back towards the Playhouse.
Wednesday, 5th September 1666
Phebe thought she must be a sea creature, a whale, perhaps, or one of those Leviathans whose bones she'd seen at Hubert's exhibition of rarities. Whenever she breached the surface, it was a dazzling blur of pain, filled with voices asking her questions she could make no sense of. She preferred the cool of the ocean deep, which was pain free, uncomplicated, and best of all, unthreatening. Somehow she knew that, if she surfaced for good, something bad awaited her, something it would take her all her strength to face. Instinct made her shy away. Not yet. Not until I must.
She swam alone but was not lonely. Ghostly shapes swam with her, many familiar, and she was glad of their company. There was Father, asking her where his instrument case was. And Mother, sewing in her rocking chair, a curve to her lips whenever she glanced at Phebe. Nan , wearing her stage breeches, laughing. Deborah, worrying she had burned the dinner. And Hannah, arm in arm with Graunt.
The serene-faced woman in blue was a puzzle, though. The Virgin Mary? Whoever she was, Phebe found her air of calm competence comforting. "Sleep, child," she told Phebe. "All will be well." Phebe hoped she was right.
Without warning, the ocean vanished and she found herself back in the shop. A customer in need of rue was drumming his fingers on the countertop.
"I'll be with you in a minute, sir," she told him.
The drawer beneath the counter was empty. As was that next to it, and the drawer next to that. Had Father moved the rue without telling her? Dust smeared her fingertips, and her searches left trails in the film that coated the drawers. They must have been empty for weeks. Confused, she looked up.
"Well?" The customer was frowning at her. "Do you have any or not?"
"I... I... Excuse me a moment." Wiping her hands on her apron, she hurried through to the other room. "Father-" The word died on her lips as she took in the empty table and bare shelves, and panic seized her. "Father," she shouted. "Where are you?"
Though she searched every room upstairs and downstairs, she found no sign of him. Nor of Deborah, come to that. No sign, in fact, that anyone had lived here for months. Her head ached and her gorge threatened to rise. She swallowed and took a breath to steady herself, then remembered. The customer. But the shop was empty when she returned to it. He must have lost patience. She sank onto a stool and clutched her head, which was throbbing so much she could barely think.
"Father, where are you?" she murmured.
Once more her surroundings wavered and reformed themselves. This time she found herself lying on her back in a narrow bed, a concerned face peering down at her, and behind the face limewashed, stone walls.
"Hush, my dear," said the woman in blue. "He isn't here."
Phebe blinked up at her. "Then where-?" Her voice emerged with a croak.
"You are safe in St Bartholomew's Hospital."
The coarse cloth being used to mop the sweat from Phebe's face felt scratchy, and closer to, Phebe could make out tiny creases and blemishes in the woman's skin. She caught a whiff of sulphur, as if her surroundings had been recently fumigated, and with a jolt the pieces fell into place.
I'm awake and on a hospital ward. She let herself grow used to the idea for a moment.
"Have I been ill?" She explored her aching temple with one hand and encountered something that must be a bandage. "How did I get here?"
"Leave your dressing alone." The woman batted her fingers away. "It would be better if you were to rest but..." Her brow furrowed. "What do you remember last, Mrs- Will you tell me your name? You may call me Sister Gale."
"Bonnick. Phebe Bonnick." She was relieved she could remember that at least. Something the Sister had said earlier registered, and she frowned. "What did you mean: my father is not here?"
Grey eyes regarded her with compassion. "His injuries proved fatal."
"Injuries?" Phebe stared at her.
Sister Gale nodded. "Those manning the fire post saw the accident. A runaway horse and cart, they said. But they took you both for dead and were too busy to do more than move you to the side of the road."
"In Coleman Street on Tuesday." Sister Gale sighed. "The carter sent later that day to retrieve your bodies discovered you were merely senseless and brought you to us. It was too late for your father, alas. They laid him to rest yesterday."
Phebe shook her head, but stopped as it made her feel sick and worsened the throbbing. "You must be mistaken. Why would we be in Coleman Street ?"
The sister shrugged. "Fleeing the fire, I imagine."
The fire. Those two words unlocked her memories, and Phebe was powerless to halt the flood that washed over her. The flaming steeple of St Olave. The rumble of cartwheels. The wave and shouted warning from the man setting up the fire post. The horse, its eyes rolling in terror. Father tugging her out of its path. Relief turning to horror as she saw the harp jutting from the cart's side. Father's renewed attempt to save her. The blow to her temple and the long fall into blackness.
"Is he truly dead?" Sister Gale didn't answer, but she didn't need to. A wave of grief surged over Phebe and the urge to vomit returned tenfold.
"Nurse," shouted Sister Gale, gauging her expression with an experienced eye. "A bowl, if you please, and quickly."
Thursday, 6th September 1666
It took Nan twice as long as it usually did to walk to Moorfields. Her preferred route was no longer accessible, so she detoured along Chancery Lane , then along Holborn and Long Lane, keeping well clear of the devastation. Dark clouds still obscured the rising sun, and she wondered how long it would take for them to disperse. The fire was out, its final outbreak extinguished that morning in the early hours, but smoke still rose from the rubble beyond the City wall, which itself had somehow survived intact if blackened.
The lack of news from Phebe worried Nan . By now, the Bonnicks should have been settled enough to write, and Phebe must know Nan was concerned about her safety. Is something preventing her? She could have been injured and her father kept too busy nursing her to think of anyone else. But what of their cookmaid? Couldn't Deborah have brought me word? But perhaps Phebe had sent her a letter and it had gone astray, as had happened when Nan was in Madeley. After all, the fire had burned down all the City post offices, and new arrangements had not yet been put in place. It was the sole straw of hope she had, so she clutched it tightly.
She smelled the temporary encampment that had sprung up on the twenty-two acres of open land opposite Moor Gate before she saw it. A camp that size needed latrines and washing facilities but it had none, and she wrinkled her nose, glad the smell of smoke masked some of the stench. A ragged queue of blank-eyed families, many carrying their possessions on their backs, was filing into the encampment, and she crossed the road and joined them.
Once inside Moorfields' fence, she came to a halt. How on earth was she to locate one person - three if you counted Mr Bonnick and Deborah - among so many? As far as Bedlam in the East and the New Artillery Ground in the North lay a mass of humanity, hiding from view the gravelled walks and tree-lined avenues of Moorfields' southernmost section and the coarse, gorse-dotted stretch of grass a little further north. The more fortunate of the refugees had erected makeshift tents, but some were sleeping on or under carts or on blankets spread on the ground. Even the wooden refreshment kiosks, which on thirsty Summer days sold mugs of small beer, had been broken into and were now providing destitute families with shelter.
Somewhere a handbell rang, and she located its source: a waggon. A crowd had gathered around it, and yet more people were arrowing towards it. She wondered what the attraction was then saw that those elbowing their way back clutched loaves of bread. Ah. It must be distributing some of the free food the King had arranged to be supplied. Kynaston, cynical as always, was of the opinion that Charles's charity was as much aimed at keeping the peace as at feeding the hungry. But whatever the reason, as she watched a man tearing up his loaf and sharing the pieces with his eager family, she was glad of it. The people here might have lost everything they had in the world, but, for now at least, they would not starve.
But standing here gawping would not find Phebe. Nor would a random search. Mouth pursed, she surveyed the encampment again. Perhaps if she started her search at the nearest, southwest corner and wove her way from one side of Moorfields to the other like a shuttle on a loom, making her way north.... Decision made, she took a breath and let it out. Very well. Let's get started.
Time passed but no one she questioned knew the whereabouts of the Bonnicks of Walbrook or the Rundells of Bread Street. Worn down by recent events, some could not understand her question let alone answer it with any coherence. And one old woman thought Nan was trying to steal her bread, and spat at her. Hands raised, palms out, Nan backed away and moved on. The food waggons came and went, picking their way between people and around tents. Each driver reined in his horses, rang his handbell, distributed his loaves (or in one instance that caused much grumbling: ship's biscuits), and departed, his waggon empty. By noon, judging from the sun's height, Nan had covered barely one tenth of the encampment. But her legs ached, her feet were sore, and she had worked up an appetite. When the next waggon arrived, she decided, she would join those seeking bread.
A sudden commotion attracted her attention. A group of riders, courtiers by their plumed hats and haughty manner, was forcing its way towards the centre of the encampment. At its heart, sitting tall in his saddle, rode a familiar dark figure.
"The King," shouted someone, and others took up the cry. Excitement spread, and Nan was almost swept off her feet as the surge of people carried her with them towards the riders.
After the courtiers had formed their horses into a protective circle around him, Charles began his address. Though Nan strained to hear, she missed his first words. But then, so did most, as they were busy hushing one another. "Judgement... hand of God... no plots," she heard, and filled in the gaps herself. "I myself have examined... take no more alarm.... be assured ... your King... live and die with you... care of you all..." Evidently Kynaston had been correct about Charles wanting to nip any unrest in the bud.
At last he drew to a close, and his regal wave brought a roar of approval from the crowd. With a broad smile and a nod of acknowledgement, the King and his escort wheeled round and made their way back toward the road. Nan watched them go.
The familiar voice from behind startled her and she turned and found herself face to face with Phebe's cookmaid. "Deborah!"
"I thought it was you. But from a distance I couldn't be sure."
Nan 's delight faded as she saw that Deborah was alone. "Where's Mrs Bonnick? With the Rundells?"
"Eh?" Deborah gave her an odd look. "I thought you'd brought us a message from her."
"A message?" said Nan blankly.
"Aye. We've seen no sign of the Bonnicks since we parted from them in Bread Street ."
Nan was still none the wiser. "Parted from them in Bread Street ?"
Deborah nodded. "Mr Bonnick insisted on returning to Walbrook. To retrieve his instrument case. And Mrs Bonnick insisted on accompanying him, to stop him from doing anything foolish. When they didn't rejoin us, Mr Rundell said they must have made other arrangements. More comfortable ones." Her expression became troubled. "We thought little it."
Nan felt ill. "To Walbrook!" She was repeating Deborah's words like a parrot, but felt incapable of doing anything else. By now the apothecary shop must be like the rest of the City - little more than ashes, rubble, and chimneystacks. If Phebe and her father had been trapped inside it.... The sky pressed down on her and she felt boxed in by the crowd.
"I doubt they've taken any harm," said Deborah, her tone too bright to be convincing. "There have been few if any lives lost, they say."
Nan waved her to silence. She needed to think. Phebe's couldn't be dead; Nan would not allow it. The mere thought of it was too awful to contemplate, so she forced it from her mind and took a deep steadying breath. But if Phebe and her father hadn't come to Moorfields as arranged, and had sent no word of their intended destination to either the Rundells or Nan , then where on earth were they?
Friday, 7th September 1666
"Why are you here?" asked the old woman in the bed to Phebe's left. She had been brought into the ward late last night and had awoken a few minutes ago.
"A blow to the head." Phebe indicated her bandage. "A cart knocked me senseless." She strove to keep the tremble from her voice. "And killed my father." She was conscious of the narrowness of her escape. Blows to the head often proved fatal, as she and her father had witnessed on several occasions.
"I'm sorry for your misfortune. No other family?"
Nan 's face flashed into her mind. Was she searching for her? Did she think Phebe was dead? Phebe shook her head and regretted it. Her dizziness had eased and with it the constant urge to vomit, and her wits were growing less cloudy by the day, but her head still ached, and shaking it make it worse.
"We all have -" A bout of fierce coughing overtook the woman, bringing one of the nurses rushing across the ward to see to her. When it had finished, she wiped her lips on the back of her hand and with a wry smile studied the smear of blood. "We all have our crosses to bear," she husked, before accepting a mug of something cool to drink.
Consumption , thought Phebe, recognising the signs .
The woman fell into a doze and silence returned to the ward, broken only by the occasional groan or mutter from a patient or the bustle of the nurses and helpers going about their business. The twenty beds were full, their occupants requiring care and the plain but substantial nourishment provided by the hospital buttery. From their burns, a few, like Phebe, were victims of the recent fire. The flames had threatened the hospital itself, but fire-fighters had pulled down most of its adjacent buildings, and in the end only a few outbuildings had been lost.
Normally, Phebe would have been considered ineligible for treatment at St Bartholomew's, but they'd found her with nothing but the clothes on her back, so she'd been taken for one of the sick poor. As for the whereabouts of Father's case and the valuable instruments inside it, Sister Gale had no knowledge of it. It must have been stolen or have met its end when the fire swept up Coleman Street consuming everything in its path.
It was ironic. A cart had killed her father, but another had saved her - she still had the bruises on her back from the jolting journey to prove it. Its driver must have been the goblin of her dreams. That nut-brown face, those wiry eyebrows.... He had conveyed her father's body too, so Sister Gale had told her, but Phebe had no memory of that. Perhaps it was just as well. Father. G rief tightened her chest into a painful knot, but she resisted the urge to cry. She had already spent hours weeping, and he would not have approved. At least he is with Mother again, she told herself, and forced herself to focus on the ward's comings and goings.
Whenever the fierce matron or one of the physicians appeared, the sisters and nurses became skittish, only heaving sighs of relief when they had departed. The hospital's resident apothecary, Frances Bernard, did not seem to instil the same fear, but his visits were rare and upon request. An acquaintance of her father's, Phebe had met him once when she was younger. He had changed little in appearance, but the same could not be said of her. He halted beside her bed once, brow creased in thought, as if trying to place her. But she did not enlighten him - talking of her father was still too painful - and after a moment, he had shaken his head and continued on about his business.
"Would you take a little meat broth if I bring it?" The kind-faced helper, who had helped her use the close stool earlier, was standing beside Phebe's bed, head cocked in enquiry.
If she were to regain her strength she must eat. "Perhaps a very little. Thank you."
She let her eyelids flutter closed and returned to her thoughts. I wonder if Deborah is still at Moorfields or if she and the Rundells have moved on.
"Mrs Bonnick, you have a visitor," came a nurse's voice.
Startled, she opened her eyes.
A familiar face was gazing down at her, the pale blue eyes full of concern. " There you are," said Nan . "I was beginning to think I'd never find you."
" Nan !" Phebe's vision blurred and emotion robbed her of speech.
"Don't tire her," ordered the nurse, walking away.
"I won't." Nan snatched up a stool and placed it next to the bed.
Ash and soot had coated her shoes and dirtied the hem of her skirt, and there were deep shadows under her eyes. Phebe was never so glad to see anyone in her life. She wiped the tears from her eyes.
"Don't cry." Nan sat down and took her hand. "They'll think you're unhappy to see me."
Phebe's gurgle of laughter surprised them both, and Nan smiled.
"Thank God you're safe. I was beginning to lose hope. If you had not been here I don't know where I would have tried next. Though you didn't escape without injury, by the look it." With a frown, she indicated Phebe's bandage.
"A blow to the head. And..." She gasped as her emotions returned full force. "Oh, Nan , my father is dead and buried."
Nan 's gaze filled with sadness. "They told me. I'm so sorry."
"He died saving me, Nan ."
The grip on her hand tightened. "Then he died content. For what father could wish for more than to save his daughter?"
The dam holding back Phebe's tears burst again, and she started to sob. Somehow Nan was sitting on the bed, holding her.
"You're safe now. There there, my dearest."
Without shame, she wept into Nan 's chest, aware only of the hand stroking her back and the murmurs of comfort.
Phebe had lost all track of time when someone cleared their throat, and she lifted her head. The helper was standing at the end of the bed, regarding them with an uncertain expression. In her hands was a bowl of steaming broth.
"One moment," said Nan . With a nonchalance Phebe envied, she untangled herself and used a clean kerchief to wipe Phebe's face. Then she took the bowl from the helper and smiled at her. "I'll make sure she eats it."
With an owlish blink and a nod, the woman walked away.
Nan 's bodice was sodden. From my tears, Phebe realised with a wince. She must look quite a sight herself, her face all blotchy and swollen. But if she did, Nan was kind enough not to mention it, and in any case, the patients around the ward were in little better condition. She sighed.
Nan waited for her to rearrange the pillows and make herself comfortable, then handed her the broth. Half-heartedly, Phebe moved the spoon around the bowl. "One mouthful," coaxed Nan . With a sigh, Phebe obeyed. "And another?"
But though the broth was tasty, after the emotional upset Phebe's stomach was threatening to rebel. She shook her head, and without comment, Nan relieved her of the bowl and set it on the floor.
Phebe's thoughts returned to her father. "Sister Gale told me they couldn't delay Father's funeral because of this hot weather." Her imagination supplied a gruesome image and she pushed it aside. "I should have been there, Nan ."
"Where is he buried?"
"St Bartholomew the Great."
"The church close by?"
"Then when you are strong enough, we'll go there and find his grave."
"Oh, thank you." The thought of Father lying in an unfamiliar churchyard amongst strangers pained her. "He was supposed to lie in the same plot as Mother. Do you think I could arrange for him to be moved to St Stephen-?"
The press of Nan 's hand stopped her. "All the churches within the City walls are shells or have been razed to the ground," she said, her eyes sombre. "It will be months, perhaps, years before they can be rebuilt."
Phebe's heart plummeted. If the churches were no more... "Walbrook?" she whispered. "The shop?"
Nan shook her head.
"Then everything I have in the world is gone." She tried to take in the magnitude of it and failed. The ward began to spin, but Nan squeezed her hand and it steadied once more.
"Not quite everything. Your cookmaid still has the things you gave into her safekeeping - I found her at Moorfields. Such a press of refugees, Phebe! And the smell." Nan grimaced.
Deborah. Phebe had been so consumed with her own plight, she had given her cookmaid's situation little thought. But her head was aching again and she found it hard to think. "What am I going to do?" she asked dully.
"Stay with me, of course."
Phebe blinked at her. "In Maypole Lane ?" Nan had never invited her back to her attic room before - she always seemed ashamed of it.
"I know." Misunderstanding her surprise, Nan shot her a look of apology. "But it would be a roof over your head until we can find you and Deborah somewhere better." She studied Phebe's face. "Perhaps Graunt and Hannah could take you in. They have a spare room, and she has need of help now she's with child."
Graunt and Hannah. Phebe hadn't considered them either. The arrangement Nan proposed might indeed suit, if all parties were willing. "Oh, Nan ," she said, grateful beyond measure for her comforting presence in what had become a hostile world. "What on earth would I do without you?"
Sunday, 9th September 1666
Nothing had prepared Nan for the roofless shell that was St Paul 's. Ludgate Arch had survived scorched but intact; even Good Queen Bess's statue still stood safe within its niche, though the heat's intensity had yellowed it. The old cathedral had not been so fortunate.
The magnificent portico at its western end had shattered into huge pieces, and those of its thick stone walls that still stood were either soot-coated or smeared with a strange white crust. Smoke curled up from the crypt, which the floor's collapse had laid open to the sky. As for the scaffolding that had proved to be its Achilles Heel, it had vanished, along with the roof. She glanced at Phebe and saw her own shock reflected in Phebe's face.
Perhaps walking to Moorfields by way of Walbrook had been a bad idea, but Phebe had insisted. She was desperate to see for herself what had happened to her home. And besides, she had exclaimed, it was her head that had been injured not her legs - something to which a rainbow-hued bump on her temple, which made Nan wince every time she caught sight of it, bore witness.
Hiring a chair to convey Phebe from the hospital had emptied Nan 's purse, and in any case no chairmen were willing to venture along the ash-covered streets inside the Wall, so reluctantly she had agreed. But it was one thing to hear that the City had burned down, quite another to see, and smell, it at close quarters - she had grown accustomed to the scent of charred dog.
Though the fire had been out for several days, Nan thought she could see the occasional sullen red glow of embers lurking in the ashes, waiting a chance to spring back to life, and heat still radiated from underfoot. While it no longer threatened to melt their soles, it brought beads of sweat to their faces, and she kept the pace slow and steady, and insisted on frequent rests, so as not to overtax Phebe's strength. There was a vulnerability about her that worried Nan , and her thoughts often seemed elsewhere.
Last night, the quiet sobbing coming from the bed had become almost more than Nan could bear, and she had risen from her blanket on the floorboards, tucked herself in behind Phebe spoon-fashion, and wrapped her arms around her. At her embrace, Phebe's shoulders had stiffened, but then she had relaxed and leaned into Nan as though giving herself entirely into her keeping. Phebe's sobs had quietened then and become sniffles, much to Nan 's relief, and then had come the rhythmic breathing that indicates sleep. It had taken Nan much longer to doze off. She'd spent some of that time counting her blessings - Phebe was safe in her arms, and, though Nan 's lodgings were far from ideal, how many other Londoners could say they were sleeping in a proper bed under a roof, leaky or otherwise? When morning came at last, she had eased herself out from behind the still sleeping Phebe, stretched, and, with a yawn, dressed and gone in search of breakfast for them both.
If all went to plan, tonight Phebe would be sleeping in a different bed under a different roof. Nana felt a twinge of regret and stifled it, telling herself not to be selfish.
"Is that lead?" Phebe was pointing towards a patch of dull grey metal, one of many pocking the ground around the ruined cathedral. There had been streams and puddles of the stuff all the way up Ludgate Hill too.
Nan nodded. "From the roof, I think. The fire must have grown so hot, it melted." By all accounts, it had cascaded down like fiery red rain.
She viewed the huge, misshapen lump Phebe was referring to from several angles. "One of the bells?" It should have been calling worshippers to prayer this Sunday morning.
Movement attracted their attention. Two men were stepping gingerly amongst the rubble and charred timbers of the cathedral's nave, stooping to examine objects that interested them before moving on.
"What are they doing?" asked Phebe.
"Seeing what they can salvage, I'd wager." In time, Charles would send his surveyors to assess the damage and determine whether St Paul 's could be repaired, but for the present he must have other concerns - hostilities with the Dutch hadn't ceased just because London had burned.
Phebe pulled a face. "There can't be much."
"No." Nan thought it best not to mention that, with so many tombs and coffins broken open and destroyed, there would be bones and corpses present in the debris.
A rustling underfoot drew her attention to the charred scraps of paper that peppered the ground for miles. She picked up two for inspection and found she was holding fragments from a psalter and a country herbal. She remembered the books and printing presses she had seen the booksellers transferring to the crypt for safety. They had instead provided more fuel for the fire.
Eyes sad, Phebe regarded the ruins. "If this has happened to St Paul 's, what hope is there for Walbrook?"
Nan let the fragments fall and hooked her arm through Phebe's. "Whatever awaits you, I'm here by your side. Shall we continue?"
Phebe sighed and nodded.
As they detoured round piles of rubble and pits that had once been cellars, they couldn't help but kick up the dust, and it clung to their clothes, hair, and even their eyelashes. Phebe was concerned about their lungs, and at her bidding they tied kerchiefs over their noses. The lack of familiar landmarks was disconcerting. The broad thoroughfare that had been Cheapside was unrecognisable, and only an occasional wall or chimneystack impeded the view north to the wall and south to the Thames .
The surface of the moon must be like this, thought Nan . All desolation, craters, and dust.
It was the same when they reached Walbrook.
With a sudden burst of energy, Phebe closed the final few yards to the spot where her apothecary shop had stood, and halted, mouth agape. The cellar kitchen alone remained, and it was now open to the sky. Dismayed, Nan watched her search for a way down. The kitchen staircase was more gaps than treads, and those treads that appeared intact might not support her weight.
"Phebe, it isn't safe! You can't risk injury for the chance of a few dinner plates."
"Not just dinner plates. Other things might have fallen through when the floors gave way. Some of Father's things could be down there. Please, Nan . I have to see for myself. Will you help me?"
Nan was unable to withstand that pleading glance. "Very well." And after much trial and error and hanging onto one another for dear life, they got down in one piece.
Clouds of ash swirled as they searched through the detritus, and Nan was glad of the kerchief over her mouth and nose. She struggled to open a warped kitchen table drawer, her grunt of triumph turning to discontent when she found only a mass of melted cutlery inside. Any hope she might have entertained of finding something worth retrieving dwindled as it quickly became clear that little had survived. The sand inside the scouring bucket was now glass, and the chamber pots Deborah had stacked ready for re-use had fused together beyond recovery.
The sound of something shattering made her turn. At Phebe's feet lay the remains of a dinner plate.
Phebe's fingers brushed the surface of the next plate on the dresser shelf and it too shattered at her touch. "Everything's ruined," she said, her voice breaking. "The shop... gone. Father... gone. My apprenticeship... gone." Her tone became savage. "And all because some baker was too stupid to quench his bake oven, and the mayor took no action until it was too late. God rot them both!"
The uncharacteristic flash of anger startled Nan , but it was better than tears. "Amen to that." She rested a hand on Phebe's shoulder. "Don't lose heart, Phebe. I know things look black, but you'll weather even this storm."
Nan nodded. "You're stronger than you think. Who was it who dared the pestilence to nurse me back to life?"
"That seems so long ago." Phebe sighed. "Another life."
"But you're the same person." Nan gave the slender shoulder a squeeze of encouragement then let her hand drop. "It may seem as though you've lost everything. But you still have your life. And your cookmaid. And me."
"You're right, of course," murmured Phebe. "My mind knows that. But my feelings...." She fell silent.
The silence between them was one of exhaustion rather than awkwardness, and Nan let it continue a moment longer then changed the subject. "Talking of cookmaids, yours will be wondering where we've got to." Nan had sent word to Moorfields that they were on their way.
"Poor Deborah. I can think of no fate worse than to be stranded with the Rundells for days on end."
That Phebe was able to make a joke of it was a good sign. "She'll be relieved to be able to restore your belongings to you."
Phebe shrugged. "Father's account books and a few other items. Of little use to me now." Her brow furrowed. "I hope she's kept Mother's embroidery box safe, though. And that sketch of you."
Nan smiled. "I can always commission another." She returned her attention to the blackened treads of the kitchen stairs. "Have you caught your breath enough to attempt the climb back up?"
"Aye," said Phebe. "Let's be on our way, Nan . There's nothing for me here."
Sunday, 9th September 1666
Never had the shabby little house in Houndsditch looked so inviting. Phebe had begun to think of London as an endless, ash-coated wasteland, but there it stood as it always had, its timbers untouched. Catastrophe might have engulfed everything beyond the City wall, a mere fifty yards away, but here life continued as usual. The thought gave her much needed comfort.
"Almost there," said Nan , as a church bell chimed six o'clock.
With a weary nod, Phebe gathered her tattered reserves. The trudge from Drury Lane via Walbrook and Moorfields had proved almost too much for her, and for the past half hour, only Nan 's arm around her waist had kept her trembling legs from buckling.
"Is this it?" Deborah's voice, raised above the rumble of the handcart's wheels, sounded unimpressed. "Is this where we are to stay?"
"Aye." Nan saved Phebe the trouble and breath of answering. "And to my mind a great improvement on Moorfields."
The cookmaid looked thoughtful, and Phebe hoped she had taken Nan 's point. For herself, she felt so removed from her surroundings, anywhere with a roof and a bed would do. She would not even have minded returning to Nan 's attic room, but it was out of the question - Phebe didn't have the strength, and there was now Deborah to consider.
Nan helped her up the steps, and before they had reached the top, the front door had swung open and Graunt stood framed in the doorway. "There you are." A smile of relief split his ugly face. "Hannah's been fretting. She was sure something awful must have happened to you. Come in. Come in." He stood to one side.
"My apologies," panted Phebe, stepping past him. "It took us longer to reach Moorfields than we had anticipated, and longer again to find Deborah in the crowds." Nan followed her in, and they waited while Graunt helped Deborah to drag the handcart inside.
"Thank you," said the cookmaid, sucking a knuckle she had banged on the doorjamb. "Deborah Mitchell." She bobbed a curtsey. "Pleased to make your acquaintance."
"Graunt." He gave her an assessing glance followed by a polite nod. "Welcome to our home." He eased past Phebe and Nan and said over his shoulder, "Hannah's waiting for us in the sitting room. This way."
As they trooped into the front room, Hannah rose from her armchair. Her belly was huge, and Phebe thought it could surely not be long now until the baby was born. "Come in, come in," she cried, her broad, freckled face beaming at them. "Thank the Lord you're all well."
"I'm sorry we caused you any concern," said Phebe. "Bless you for agreeing to take us in."
"You're more than welcome. Church was packed with strangers this morning, many of them homeless, and we were glad we could say we had already made arrangements to take in a friend and her servant." Hannah gave Graunt a wry smile. "Weren't we, husband?"
He nodded and muttered, "Thought that sermon was never going to end. Too fond of his own voice, that one."
Phebe felt Nan urging her towards the sofa, but though there was nothing she wanted more than to sit down, she resisted, gesturing at the streaks of dirt and ash on their clothes. "We'll spoil their furniture, Nan . And we must reek of smoke." Not that she could smell it any more.
Hannah waved a hand in airy dismissal. "Oh, never mind about that. Our house always reeks of Graunt's tobacco in any case." She cast him a humorous glance, and he pretended to scowl. "Dirt can be sponged off. Sit down before you fall down."
"Oh. Thank you." With a groan of relief, Phebe did, glad to be able to take the weight of her sore feet at last. A moment later, the sofa dipped as with a weary sigh Nan sat next to her.
Deborah had remained by the door, and Phebe beckoned her forward to make the introductions. "Do you two know one another?"
"We've met, but briefly," said Deborah, with a smiling nod in Hannah's direction. "I've Mrs Graunt to thank for recommending me as her replacement, remember." She made her host and hostess her best curtsey, and Phebe relaxed. "It's good to have a proper roof over my head again," she went on. "Thank you for your hospitality."
"You're very welcome," said Hannah, gesturing to a chair. Deborah took it. " Nan 's note said you'd been living at Moorfields. You must tell us all about it. And spare none of the gory details. But first-" Hannah addressed her husband. "-will you take their baggage up? I'll fetch refreshments."
While Hannah vanished into the kitchen, Graunt disappeared into the hall. The bangs, crashes, and muffled curses that followed as he manhandled the handcart upstairs made Nan chuckle under her breath. Then Hannah returned with a bowl of water and some cloths.
"May I?" Deborah sprang to her feet to relieve her of her burden.
While Hannah returned to the kitchen, they washed their hands and dried them. When Graunt reappeared, he refused an offer to do the same with a shake of his head.
"We ate earlier." He sat in the armchair next to his wife's.
"We did indeed." Hannah had returned, carrying a tray containing bread, slices of ham, and cups of ale. Receiving a nod of encouragement, Nan helped herself, and with a groan of relief, Hannah resumed her seat. Her eyes met Phebe's and she gave her a rueful smile. "I'll be very glad when this baby's born. She's making me feel like a heifer, and I'm always tired."
"She?" queried Nan , passing the tray to Phebe. Aware of Nan 's concerned glance, she took a slice of ham and some bread, and handed the tray on to Deborah.
"I'm willing it to be a girl," said Hannah. "Graunt would prefer a boy." She glanced at him. "Wouldn't you?"
"And no wonder," said Nan . "A man alone in a house full of women."
"Oh, he likes that." Hannah smirked.
The object of their discussion rolled his eyes, then pulled out his pipe and lit it.
When their hunger pangs had been blunted, and Hannah had topped up their cups with more ale, they talked, first of Deborah's experiences in Moorfields, and then of Nan 's activities at the King's Playhouse. The conversation turned to the fire and its aftermath - the destruction had been great, but remarkably few had died - so it was inevitable that the subject of Phebe's father should come up. She managed to rouse herself a little to talk of what had happened, but her heart wasn't in it. Luckily, Nan noticed and changed the subject by asking Graunt whether it was true some merchants were already trading at the relocated Royal Exchange in Gresham College , just around the corner. Shooting her a glance full of gratitude, Phebe withdrew into herself once more.
A feeling of torpor settled over her and her thoughts slowed to a crawl. She felt like an animal whose immediate requirements had been taken care of, with no need to give further thought to the future or the past. She was among friends, safe and warm - the fire crackling in the Graunts' grate saw to that - anchored by the comforting press of Nan 's hip against hers. It was enough.
"Are you all right?"
Nan was peering at her, her expression concerned. So were the others, she saw with a start. How much time had passed? But Nan was waiting for her answer, so she blinked herself awake and sat up. "Yes."
"Good." Nan smiled and stood up, then smoothed her crumpled dress. "Then I must take my leave. It's growing dark and I must walk back to my lodgings."
Reality came crashing back. "Oh, must you?" Phebe's heart fluttered in her chest. For the past few days, Nan had been her rock. How would she manage alone?
Nan rested a hand on her shoulder. "It won't be the last you see of me. I'm like a burr - annoying but hard to get rid of." Her words and the accompanying grin made the panic recede a little. "You're in good hands." She glanced at Hannah and Graunt, who nodded. "Rest and recover your strength." She gave Phebe's shoulder a pat, and, evidently satisfied by what she saw in Phebe's face, let her hand drop.
When Graunt escorted Nan out, Phebe couldn't bring herself to say farewell. Her exhaustion had returned full force and she sank into herself once more.
"Would you like to retire, Phebe?" With a start she realised Hannah was standing over her, and Deborah was hovering behind her. "You're falling asleep in your chair."
Bed and oblivion - she could think of nothing more desirable. "Thank you, I would." As she stood up, it dawned on her that the only clothes she had were those she was wearing - she hadn't thought to bring the shift Nan had lent her last night, and Nan hadn't reminded her. She reddened. "I've nothing to sleep in."
" Nan 's letter warned me that would be the case," said Hannah calmly. "Tonight you'll both wear some of my own nightwear - laundered, of course." Deborah gave her a grateful nod. "And tomorrow Graunt will go to Gresham College and purchase us some bolts of linen and wool. Won't you, dear?"
"Eh?" came her husband's panicked voice. He had returned from seeing Nan off. "I don't know anything about buying fabric for women's-"
"I'll write it all down for you." Hannah returned her gaze to Phebe and Deborah. "And when he's brought it home, we'll make a start on new undergarments and dresses."
"Oh, thank you." Phebe gave into impulse and hugged Hannah, though the vast swell of her belly made it difficult. She felt the baby kick.
"There, there." Hannah blushed but looked pleased. "You'd do the same for me." Her manner became brisk. "Now. Deborah, will you help your mistress to the bedchamber you'll be sharing? It's the one at the top of the stairs - Graunt's already put your baggage in it."
Monday, 10th September 1666
Nan finished off the last of her bread and cheese and wondered how Phebe was faring. Last night she had seemed so frail and bruised, Nan had been reluctant to leave her. But Phebe was being well cared for, and this morning Killigrew had required every member of the company to be in attendance. The costumes and props sent to safer ground during the fire had been carted back to the Playhouse, and the arduous business of restoring them to their rightful places was under way - Nan had the scrapes and bumps to prove it. She hoped Phebe hadn't spent another night sobbing for her father. But at least Deborah was there to keep an eye on her.
It was the future that concerned Nan . She would like nothing better than for Phebe to share hers, but any plan must include more than shelter. Phebe would not welcome Nan 's charity, and a mind as quick and intelligent as hers required occupation. At a stroke, the death of her father and destruction of their shop had deprived her of home and family and all hopes of becoming an apothecary. To come within a whisker - well, two years - of completing her apprenticeship.... Such a waste.
"Your pardon, Mrs Shelton. I saw your friends depart and presumed this room was empty."
Nan stopped twirling her signet ring and looked up. Judging by the cloth in one hand and the tray tucked beneath her arm, the Rose's landlady, Mary Long, had come to collect the empties.
"Be my guest." She gestured at the table, where Kynaston's tankard and Beck's wine cup sat amidst ale rings and breadcrumbs. Dinner had been an untidy, raucous affair, as always, though Kynaston had proclaimed Nan poor company these days, as her thoughts were always elsewhere. That was doubly true of today.
It was Finch's apothecary shop in Russell Street that had set her thinking. It, and the rooms above it, had been boarded up for almost nine months now, and since her return to London Nan must have passed it several times a week without remark, except to note that it had still not been let. Without remark, that was, until this morning.
As she was passing the boarded-up shop, it had dawned on her that the fire had changed everything. The fact it had been an infected house would no longer be a deterrent to any City apothecary desperate for new premises, and it would surely not be long before one snapped it up. On a whim, she had peered through the grimy front window. To her eyes the dust-covered furniture and contents seemed all present and correct, and she had continued on her way, deep in thought. The seed of an idea had sprouted, though, and continued to grow.
"Are you returning to the Playhouse?" asked Widow Long, stacking the empties on the tray.
"No. We are done for the day. Thank heavens."
The landlady wiped the table, then glanced at Nan in enquiry. "Another cup?"
For a moment she was tempted. The thought of spending a lazy afternoon here.... She shook her head. It occurred to her that Mrs Long, and her dead husband before her, had run the tavern for many years and must have extensive knowledge of the locality. "What do you know of the apothecary shop just around the corner?"
"Finch's?" said the landlady at once.
Nan nodded. There was another apothecary shop further up Russell Street , but it was much larger and grander, belonged to the King's own apothecary, and was not for lease.
The landlady sighed. "Poor Mr Finch. He used to come in here whenever he had a spare moment. Always drank alone though. Not the type to make friends, you see, and no family to speak of." She shook her head. "He was as stiff as a board when they found him. Been dead for days, so the constable said. His cookmaid and apprentice had run off without telling anyone he was dying." She spoke with horrified relish.
"Feared being shut in with him, I'll wager." And who could blame them? Nan remembered her own desperate attempts to leave the Cock and Pie.
"But to leave him to die all alone...." Mrs Long shuddered.
"Do you know who owns the lease?"
"In that part of Russell Street ? Almost certainly the Duke of Bedford. Unless it's one of the houses that good-for-nothing son of his sold a few years ago. Try the Duke's land agent."
"Thank you. I will." Nan pushed back her chair and stood up.
Mrs Long lingered, her curiosity piqued. "But of what possible use can Finch's be to you, Mrs Shelton?"
"My errand concerns my friend, Mrs Bonnick."
"Ah." The landlady gave her a knowing smile - she must have heard Nan 's friends teasing her about Phebe. "Is she an apothecary?"
Nan returned her smile. "Not yet."
Monday, 10th September 1666
"Your stitches are so tiny," marvelled Deborah, not for the first time. "A match for any seamstress."
"Aye." Hannah gave Phebe a smile. "But don't waste your best efforts on garments others won't see."
Bolts of the bleached linen Graunt had purchased following his wife's instructions surrounded the three women, along with pieces of lace for trimming. They had spent the day in the Graunts' sitting room making new undergarments - tomorrow they would tackle new gowns - and stopped at noon for a light dinner. Phebe had found the mindless activity and company of friends soothing. All that was missing was Nan .
Sewing allowed her mind to wander, and when she wasn't thinking of her father, she found her thoughts drifting back to her time in the Cock and Pie. A lifetime ago. She had a vivid memory of perching at the top of the stairs, trying to get comfortable so she could take her turn at the makeshift Shove Ha'penny grid Nan had chalked on the landing, while Nan provided a humorous running commentary on Collier's skill - or lack of it - at lute playing. That period had been dreamlike, punctuated by moments of terror and despair, yet she had been strangely content, even happy. Would she ever be that happy again?
"Who says no one will see them?" said Deborah, dropping to her hands and knees while she used the shears to cut out two T-shaped piece of linen for another smock. "Be prepared, that's my motto."
Hannah tutted. "And one liable to land you with a belly as large as mine. Ow!" She rested a hand on the belly in question. In the distance, a church bell struck 5 o'clock. "She must think she's a lamb, all this gambolling and kicking."
Phebe smiled. "A sign all is well."
"A sign she takes after my husband," muttered Hannah.
Deborah chuckled, and Phebe tried to imagine Graunt gambolling, without success. The constable had reopened the infected house in Water Mark Lane , so the watchman had gone in search of another job. Labourers were in demand to clear rubble from cellars, so he'd said he might try that for a change. But the wink he'd given Phebe before departing told her he was also grateful for the excuse to escape from a house full of chattering women.
And who could blame him? It was kind of the Graunts to take in Phebe and Deborah, but it must be a strain, especially with Hannah's baby due soon. Fortunately, Deborah was getting on so well with Hannah, all had agreed that she should become the Graunts' new cookmaid - until after the baby was weaned, at least. It made sense, as Phebe could no longer provide her with either shelter or employment. As for Phebe's own future, she found it too distant and daunting to contemplate, so she shelved thinking about it for another day.
"It was my mother who taught me to sew." Mother had taken as much pride in needlework as Father had in being an apothecary, and Phebe had spent long childhood evenings sewing by candlelight with her. Now both her parents were gone. The thought brought another pang of grief, and she swallowed and set it to one side.
"She taught you well." Hannah bit off the thread, and held up a finished pair of drawers, turning them this way and that before giving a nod of satisfaction.
A knock at the front door made them look at one another. "Will you see who that is?" Hannah asked Deborah.
With a grunt of effort the cookmaid got to her feet and vanished into the hall. She returned a few moments later with a familiar figure in tow.
" Nan !" said Phebe, in pleased surprise. "I thought we wouldn't see you until later."
Nan took in the unfinished garments strewn everywhere and grinned. "I'm glad to see you all so well occupied." Then she sobered. "I'm sorry for the interruption, but I have something important to ask Phebe and it won't wait." With an apologetic shrug she added, "Something private."
"Oh." Phebe wondered what on earth it could be. "Shall we go up to my bedchamber?" She could not very well ask their hostess to vacate her own sitting room. Nan nodded. "Will you excuse us?" Phebe asked, feeling awkward.
"Of course," said Hannah. Her eyes twinkled. "But you can expect questions from us later."
Cheeks warming, Phebe nodded assent.
They went upstairs and closed the bedchamber door behind them. Phebe seated herself on the bed, while Nan took in their surroundings. The furnishing were Spartan compared to the rest of the house, but Hannah had promised new curtains, as soon as she had a moment to sew them, and Graunt was keeping his eyes peeled for a cheap dressing table. She saw Nan eye the truckle bed on which lay Deborah's folded nightshift, the handcart that took up a corner of the room, and the Huysmans sketch of Nan she had pinned to one wall, and she felt suddenly self-conscious. But though Nan 's eyes widened a little, she made no comment.
"What private matter?" Phebe rested her hands in her lap.
Nan developed an interest in her thumbnail. "Did you sleep well?"
Were they to exchange pleasantries first? wondered Phebe wryly. "A little. Fortunately, Deborah is a sound sleeper." She didn't mention that her former cookmaid snored.
"Good." Nan looked up. "Are you comfortable here?"
"As much as I would be anywhere." Phebe seized the opportunity to bring up a subject that had been preying on her mind. "About Father's grave, Nan .... May we visit it soon? And would you... would you say a few words over him?" As an actress, Nan must have come across some verse or a few lines suitable.
"Of course." Nan looked surprised. "Tell me when you feel up to going and we'll go."
Relief washed over Phebe. "Oh. Thank you." But gazing up at Nan was making her neck ache, so she patted the mattress beside her, and after a moment Nan sat. "Surely that's not the matter you wished to discuss?"
"No." She seemed to be searching for the right words.
What could be so important that Nan was at a loss how to begin? A jolt of alarm went through Phebe. "It's not...Are you unwell?"
"What? Oh no, nothing like that." Nan reddened. "All the way here I rehearsed what I was going to say, but my words seem to have deserted me."
"Haven't we been through enough to be straightforward with one other? Just tell me."
"You're right, of course." Nan took a breath and let it out. "It concerns our future. Yours and mine." Her eyes met Phebe's and Phebe was struck as always by their blueness. "I've concocted a plan, but it's by no means certain of success. So before I embark upon it, I need your approval."
Phebe's heart thudded. "I'm listening."
"Do you remember Finch's, the apothecary shop in Russell Street ? Graunt brought medicines and simples from him when you wished to avoid bothering your father."
"During our time in the Cock and Pie?" Phebe nodded. She had met Finch several times before then too. A rather hunched little man, he reminded her of a dormouse. "I remember him. Why?"
"His shop and the rooms above it are available to lease."
Phebe knit her brows. "Doesn't he object?"
"I hope not." Nan chuckled. "He's been dead these nine months. Of plague. The shop is shut up, but the furniture and stock are intact."
Poor Mr Finch. "I see. But why should his shop interest us?"
Nan 's blush deepened. "I propose to lease it. I want us to live there, and you to run the apothecary shop."
"Us?" Phebe returned Nan 's hopeful look with one of bewilderment. There were so many problems with Nan 's proposal, she didn't know where to start. She was examining them, one by one, when it dawned on her that Nan was sitting frozen, her expression one of dismay.
She grabbed hold of Nan 's hand, and found it icy to the touch. "There now. I'd like nothing better. You startled me, that's all, Nan . But truth be told-" She sighed.
Colour returned to Nan 's cheeks and her breathing eased. "Yes?"
Phebe studied her. "How can you possibly afford such a lease? You've never hidden how straitened your circumstances are. And I've nothing to my name except the clothes on my back and the contents of that." She indicated the handcart.
Nan raised the little finger of her right hand. The signet ring glinted.
"Oh." A lump formed in Phebe's throat. Of all the things Nan might have asked the King for.... He was known to have lavished thousands of pounds on his mistresses and their brats, and given houses to his favourite actresses - not that Nan was ever likely to be either. "You'd use up the King's favour on my behalf?"
"Our behalf." Nan raised their clasped hands and kissed Phebe's knuckles.
At the touch of her lips, a thrill went through Phebe, and she felt her cheeks warm. It was a moment before she could gather her thoughts, and Nan 's eyes, fixed on her face, crinkled with pleased amusement.
"Much as I would like to, Nan ," managed Phebe, "I can't run the shop for you. I'm not qualified, nor ever likely to be, now my father is-" She stopped, unable to say the word.
"Another apothecary must apprentice you."
"Ha! Most of Father's friends thought him misguided if not mad. They said apprenticing a female was a waste, as once I married I would give it up." Phebe gave Nan a bleak smile. "They humoured him because I was his daughter."
"'Most of'," said Nan . "We only need one to take the bait. And ours is a very juicy worm."
"Aye. After the fire, City apothecaries are desperate for new premises. I'll offer our shop to one at a nominal rent, and he'll keep all the profits for himself. My only stipulations are: he must agree to a two-year term and he must apprentice you. He won't even have to pay your room and board, as a master usually does."
Phebe blinked at her. Put like that.... "Why two years?"
"The term of your apprenticeship remaining. After that, you'll be an apothecary in your own right and the shop will be yours."
The idea of having her own shop took Phebe's breath away. Was it possible? There was a flaw in Nan 's logic, however. "But if you and I are to live above the shop, where would he live?"
"Somewhere else." Nan shrugged. "He must be doing that now in any case."
Hm. There was still one problem, though. "But how on earth are we to find such a man, Nan ? The fire destroyed Apothecaries Hall and all my father's friends and colleagues have dispersed to the four winds."
Nan let out a rueful laugh. "To be honest, I've no idea. There are other bridges to cross before we reach that one. Not least of which is getting the King to agree to grant me the lease. Especially as the shop belongs not to him but to the Duke of Bedford - I spoke with the Duke's land agent this afternoon, and he confirmed it's his."
"Oh," said Phebe, crestfallen.
"Forgive me." Nan patted her hand. "I would have preferred to come to you when everything was in place, but I needed your approval. If the future I propose had held no appeal, there would have been no point in pursuing it." She paused. "As you appear to feel as I do, though...." Her eyes sought Phebe's and Phebe gave her a silent nod. "Then I think it worth the attempt. Will you let me try?"
Again Phebe nodded. Her heart was pounding so hard, she wondered if Nan could hear it.
"Good." Nan stood up.
"You're not going, already, are you?"
Nan grimaced. "I must get back to the land agent. With no cash for a down payment, it will take all my powers of persuasion to get him to hold the lease for me."
"And I must tell Killigrew I'll be absent from the Playhouse for the next few days, as who knows when I'll be able to see the King? Thank heavens our performances at the Cockpit are in abeyance." Nan 's gaze turned inwards. "I wonder if he would put in a good word for me at Court and move me up the queue." Her attention returned to Phebe. "Will you tell the others I shan't be able to come to supper? I've so much to do and I must be up early to go to Whitehall ."
Phebe stifled a sigh. From the sound of it, she wouldn't be seeing Nan again until this business was resolved. But if it led to the future Nan had outlined.... "Very well."
"Thank you. I'll send word each day of my progress - it's a stroke of luck the temporary letter office has been set up in Bridges Street ." Nan opened the door, rested her hand on the door handle, and looked back. "And while you're sewing your undergarments-" She smiled. "-do you think you could turn your mind to the task of finding us a suitable apothecary?"
Phebe winced. Nan must have a higher opinion of her abilities than she did. But it was only fair she should play some part in bringing Nan 's plan to fruition. "I'll try."
Thursday, 13th September 1666
The two guards standing at the entrance to the Vane Room - so called, Nan had heard, because of the weathervane on its roof - looked as bored as Nan felt. When she had sat down in the waiting area, four hours ago, the cushioned bench had seemed comfortable, but her backside was now in danger of going numb.
Tempted though she was to stand up and walk about, she dared not risk losing her place, and her fidgeting drew a disapproving frown from the elderly man sitting next to her. She wondered what his business with the King was. Though he had arrived after her, those in charge would no doubt deem his business more pressing than hers. It had been the same story since Tuesday, and as the days passed, she was beginning to lose hope.
Killigrew's help had got her as far as this bench, overlooked by several magnificent paintings of Charles and his royal ancestors, but she was only one of many who had made their way up the Long Gallery, past the statues on their pedestals, to the waiting area, and to say the King was busy was an understatement. Though a grumbling Albemarle had been dragged back from the fleet to assist him, Charles himself was much in demand.
When Bedford 's land agent had granted Nan first refusal on the lease - with reluctance, and only after she had twice explained the King's likely involvement - she had been elated. But the agreement held good for seven days, and if she couldn't obtain his assistance by then, the offer would expire. An additional unspoken concern was that, though Charles had so far repaid all debts of gratitude incurred during his time in exile... and handsomely too... when it came to money, he could be notoriously 'forgetful'. The fear she might still have to dash Phebe's hopes weighed heavily on her.
Fortunately, for the present, matters of her own were keeping Phebe occupied. Before setting out for Whitehall this morning, Nan had received a letter from her announcing the arrival of Hannah and Graunt's first child, born late yesterday afternoon. She was indeed a girl child, and she had been so eager to see the world, she'd arrived several weeks early, birth cord wrapped around her neck and threatening to choke her, and the midwife nowhere to be found. Reading between the lines, only Phebe's quick thinking and deft manipulation - it was just as well her hands were small - had saved the day. And when the midwife appeared at last, the baby was safe, washed, swaddled, and suckling at her exhausted mother's breast.
Thank the lord. If only Nan 's own business could be brought to such a satisfactory conclusion.
The letter had contained other more promising news. It had occurred to Phebe that the resident apothecary at St Bartholomew's Hospital, an old acquaintance of Mr Bonnick's, apparently, might be willing to help them, and she had arranged to call on him at his place of work after their visit to St Bartholomew the Great on Sunday. Which reminded Nan - she was supposed to speak a few words over Phebe's father's grave.
For the next twenty minutes she applied herself to finding lines fit for a man's untimely passing. Shakespeare must have written something. Or Marvel. One by one she sifted through the hundreds of fragments of poetry and prose that had lodged in her memory over the past six years, considering and discarding each in turn for one reason or another. She was beginning to despair of ever finding one, when she had a brainwave.... What about that funeral song from Act IV of Cymbeline? The one sung by Guiderius and Arviragus? How did it go? Fear no more the heat o' the sun, Nor the furious winter's rages; Thou thy worldly task hast done, Home art gone, and -
The guards standing vigil snapped to attention as the doors to the Vane Room swung open and the Chief Justice emerged, deep in thought. Shakespeare's song forgotten, Nan leaned forward and peered into the gilded interior. Almost at once, she spotted the King - not sitting in his splendid chair of state but standing by a table with his brother. Both were tossing back the contents of their goblets - they must be taking a few moments to relax. The temptation proved too much, and without thought, she rose and lurched towards the doors. The elderly man on the bench beside her let out a startled squawk.
"Halt," cried the guards, rushing to block her path. The taller of the two took Nan by the upper arm, his grip tight enough to bruise.
"I beg your pardon." She gaped at him in dismay. "I didn't mean-" But already, they were manhandling her away from the doors, and she cursed herself for a fool. "No! Please." At a stroke she had wasted all her efforts to talk to the King.
"Stop. Is that Mrs Shelton? Pox take you, I said stop ."
The King's bellow brought the guards to a halt, and they regarded one another with consternation. "Are you Mrs Shelton?" growled the one gripping her arm.
"Yes." She craned her head round and saw Charles standing just inside the Vane Room's doors. His eyes locked with hers and, beckoning impatiently, he retreated inside.
For a moment, no one moved, then, grumbling, the guards released her. She blinked at them. "What are you waiting for?" growled the tall one again. "Don't keep 'is Majesty waiting."
Nan took a shaky breath and, ignoring the man on the bench's indignant glare, hurried through the doors.
The loud thud as the guards closed them with feeling behind her brought all conversation to a startled halt. She found herself the object of attention of everyone in the Vane Room, and, resisting the urge to pull in her neck like a tortoise, squared her shoulders, straightened her neck, and assumed a relaxed and, she hoped, composed, expression.
Glances of surprise, curiosity, disdain, and, in Killigrew's case studied indifference, followed her. Many faces were familiar. Albemarle , Buckingham, Arlington ... And isn't that that architect, what's his name... Wren? As the conversations around the room started up again, she wrenched her attention back to the King, who had resumed his position by the table. His brother the Duke had left his side, though, and was now talking to some of his cronies.
There were shadows under Charles's eyes, and she wondered if the leaping orange flames that now haunted the dreams of many of his subjects also haunted his. Or perhaps it was the scale of the task he was engaged in, whatever that was. As she drew closer to him, she saw that a huge map of London covered the surface of the table, its curling corners pinned down by marble paperweights and dirty plates and goblets, and understanding dawned. He is planning the new city . A great undertaking indeed.
She came to a halt and made him her most graceful curtsey. "Your Majesty."
"Mrs Shelton." Charles's eyes crinkled at the corners, and she felt the full effect of his charm. "A dramatic entrance as always. What brings you to Whitehall ? Surely there is no performance this evening?"
"No, Sire. I am here on another matter." She removed the ring from her little finger and held it out.
"Ah." The understanding in his voice brought a rush of relief. At least he wasn't going to pretend ignorance. A page darted forwards to take the ring from her, but the King waved him away and took it himself. "And what will this shabby trinket cost me?" He gave her a wry smile. "1000 guineas?"
"Much less, Sire. In fact, nothing at all except, perhaps, the goodwill of the Duke of Bedford, and that for a fleeting moment."
His brows knit. "Indeed?"
Nan 's heart sank. She had been banking on the fact he would not mind putting the Duke's nose out of joint. After all, the staunchly Presbyterian Bedford might have carried the royal sceptre at Charles's coronation, but these days he was more often to be found in opposition. Still. Nothing ventured. "Aye, your Majesty. There is a property in Russell Street that belongs to the Duke. I ask merely for your aid in, er, persuading him to grant me its lease... gratis ."
The King's sudden bark of laughter made every head turn. "Go on." He slipped the ring onto his finger and motioned her to continue.
"It is an apothecary shop and the rooms above it. Its previous occupant died of plague and it has remained empty and shut up ever since." His expression was puzzled again, so she hurried to explain, "It is for a friend of mine, Sire. Her late father was an apothecary, and she his apprentice."
"A woman apothecary!" Amusement made his lips twitch. "'Ods fish, where will it end?" He took a moment to admire the ring - a poor thing indeed compared to the others he was wearing, but it looked somehow at home - before returning his attention to her. "Is that all that you require? Think carefully, Mrs Shelton, and speak now or hold your peace, for you cannot redeem this favour twice."
"There is one more thing, Sire. If you could also direct the Society of Apothecaries to approve the transfer of my friend's apprenticeship in due course, I would be much obliged."
"Nothing more?" He cocked his head
He gave a nod of satisfaction. "Then the lease and the direction you shall have. Hyde." The last word was a bellow that made her jump, and in response Charles's elderly Lord Chancellor, the Earl of Clarendon, limped from the other side of the room to his master's side.
"Mrs Shelton is to have the lease of a house in Russell Street from Bedford ." Hyde opened his mouth, but the King barrelled on before he could speak, "Whether he likes it or not. And you yourself are to direct the Society of Apothecaries to render her assistance in another matter. She will provide you with the particulars in due course. See to it, will you?"
Hyde inclined his head. "At once, Sire."
"Good." Charles brushed some crumbs from the map with his hand and resumed his perusal of it. "Your assistance, Mr Wren," he called out, and with a nervous smile, the architect hurried to his side.
Her presence forgotten, and feeling rather dazed - could the first part of her plan truly be about to fall into place? - Nan hesitated. She had not yet thanked the King. But Hyde gave her a testy look - perhaps his gout was bothering him again - and gestured towards the doors.
"Shall we, Mrs Shelton ?"
Gathering up her skirts, she made the King her deepest and most sincere curtsey, and followed Hyde out.
Sunday, 16th September 1666
The church bell chimed the half hour in a different key from that of the muffled hymn-singing wafting across St Bartholomew the Great's graveyard. The clash made Phebe wince.
How much longer was it going to take Nan to locate her father's burial plot? Phebe's small posy of flowers was already wilting. It was her own fault. She should have known that the rector would be too busy with Sunday morning service to spare them any time. At least they had a fine day for it, though touches of early Autumn in the air signalled the likelihood of another hard Winter.
By rights she should be inside the church with the rest of the congregation, adding her voice to theirs, but recent events had sapped her faith in a Loving Creator. In time, perhaps, it would return - at least, she hoped so - but for now she preferred to take her comfort in more tangible form, and once more her eyes sought out the tall, dark-haired figure talking to a man's head - or so it appeared from this distance.
The gravedigger was in reality standing in a half dug grave, from which Nan had, a few moments ago, spotted a spade scattering lumps of clay. Telling Phebe, "Wait here. The chances are he dug your father's grave himself," she had hurried over to speak to him.
The tombstones radiating in all directions were a stark reminder of her father's fate. Had it been a mere two weeks? So much had happened since then, it was almost as if the universe was conspiring to move her on. First had come the arrival of Hannah's baby. Elizabeth might look like a cherub, but her lungs had the force of Boreus, and were keeping the whole household awake every night. Next had come the astonishingly fast transfer of the Russell Street shop's lease into Nan 's safekeeping - evidently when the King wanted something done, his ministers leaped to it. What's more, as Finch had no heirs, his goods and chattels had reverted to the Crown, and Clarendon and Bedford had decided it was simpler to throw them in too.
Before the shop and the rooms above it were habitable, though, they must be fumigated and any unwanted contents removed. And while Nan was willing to listen to Phebe's advice regarding the fumigation, she was insisting on taking care of everything else herself, and had even co-opted Beck and Kynaston to help.
It pained Phebe to admit it, but Nan had been right to spare her. She felt drained as it was. And after their business here was concluded, she must meet Francis Bernard as arranged. She was dreading it - the sights and sounds of the hospital were sure to provoke unwelcome memories. At least this time she was a visitor rather than a patient. But if he was unwilling or unable to help her find someone to take Father's place ( Not that anyone ever could.) she didn't know what she'd do. It would be such a shame, after all Nan 's efforts. She's relying on me and I cannot fail her.
Nan turned and beckoned, jerking Phebe from her thoughts, and she picked her way between the mounds and gravestones. By the time she had reached Nan 's side, the gravedigger had emerged and was standing beside the fresh grave, head bowed, hands clasped together.
"He remembers where they buried your father," said Nan . "Or at least the man who was found in Coleman Street . And the date tallies."
"Aye, madam." The man gave Phebe a respectful nod. "Two weeks ago it was, and paid for by the hospital."
Phebe's heart thudded in her chest. "That must be him."
"Not the best of plots," he continued, his tone apologetic. "It's hard against the north wall, and awkward to reach. But he has it all to himself. Those who die of plague, poor souls, well-" He waved a dirt-ingrained hand towards the huge mound of earth on the far side of the graveyard.
"Will you show us?" asked Nan . "Here's three pence for your trouble."
"Thankee." He took the coins with a nod. "Follow me. But take care you don't trip."
He set off north, and after a moment Phebe and Nan hurried after him. The ground was uneven, and Phebe was glad of Nan 's hand under her elbow.
"Should we recompense the hospital?" she asked.
"For what?" Nan looked at her. "Oh. The grave plot?"
"I think it likely there's some standing arrangement with the rector. But if they send us the bill, we'll pay it."
The rushed manner of her father's burial still pained Phebe. No relatives or friends had gathered for the funeral feast or processed behind the coffin. No rector had spoken with affection and authority about his life and achievements, before commending him to his maker and interring him inside the church's aisle. Old Mr Norton had a far better send-off.
Nan's hand tugged her to a halt, and she realised the gravedigger had stopped beside a shallow mound of bare earth on which the mosses and grasses were already trying to regrow, marked only by a rough cross made of two rough-hewn pieces of wood, tied together.
"Is this it?" asked Nan .
With a touch of his forelock, he left them to it, and a feeling of numbness descended on Phebe as she regarded the place where her father's body lay. The silence grew and once more she heard the faint sound of hymn-singing.
"The posy," Nan reminded her, her tone gentle.
"Oh. Yes." She placed it at the foot of the cross and stood back, at a loss.
To her surprise Nan rested a comforting arm around her shoulders and started to sing. Her voice was soft and melodious, and somehow suited their surroundings. It was the simple tune that held Phebe's attention, but gradually the lyrics impinged on her consciousness and she realised that the song was managing to put into words emotions she had been unable to express. Tears blurred her vision, as they had many times since she her father's death, but this time they were tears of release.
At last the song ended, but no hymns filled the silence - the rector must be giving his sermon. Unable to speak, Phebe clasped Nan around the waist and gave her a wordless hug.
"Here." Nan handed her a clean kerchief.
She wiped her eyes, and swallowed until she could manage a husky thank you.
"Thank Shakespeare," said Nan , her voice gruff. "Those were his words not mine."
"But you chose them." She gave Nan 's waist another squeeze.
Nan shrugged. "He was your father."
"He was." She sighed. The crudeness of the cross offended her, though whoever had put it there meant well.
"Shall we commission a proper headstone?" Nan had followed her glance. "The rector should be free again soon, and we have a little time yet before your appointment with Mr Bernard. We could ask him to recommend a local mason."
Phebe seized on the suggestion at once. "I'd like that," she said.
Monday, 1st October 1666
Nan let herself in her own front door, still marvelling that she should have such a thing. "I'm back," she called, closing the door behind her. "Killigrew drove us like slaves so I could not get away earl-" She stopped, seeing no sign of Phebe in the body of the shop or the curtained-off dispensary area.
A refreshing scent of bees wax had replaced the sulphurous aromas that had refused to fade, even after two weeks. Following Phebe's advice, and with Beck and Kynaston's help, Nan had placed chafing dishes of pitch, nitre, and frankincense in every room. The resulting stench was worse than Graunt's tobacco and only getting rid of Finch's mattresses, hangings, and rugs had reduced it to bearable. It had also meant Nan must sleep on a blanket on the floor for a couple of nights until the new mattresses were delivered. It was her own fault. Eager to see the back of her room in Maypole Lane , she had moved in at the earliest opportunity, but she had permitted Phebe to leave Houndsditch and join her only after the worst was over, two days ago.
And now Phebe's hard work has finished the job. Floorboards, shelves, counter, and their contents, gleamed in the sunlight pouring through spotless windowpanes.
Feeling guilty - a lot hung on the imminent visit and Nan had promised to help Phebe with her cleaning - she made her way upstairs to Phebe's bedchamber. They had separate rooms and so far had kept to them - from her dealings with Sophia, Nan knew all too well how it felt when the other party held all the power, and she was wary of abusing her position. But she found herself constantly seeking out Phebe's company, and sensed that Phebe was doing the same, which boded well for the future. Now all that remained was for the final part of their plan to fall into place.
Phebe was standing in front of the looking glass, frowning. "Suppose he takes a dislike to me?" She turned from her reflection to regard Nan .
Nan had been braced for reproach and it took her a moment to adjust. "Mr Fownes?"
Phebe nodded. "Or suppose he thinks women shouldn't be apothecaries?" She bit her lip. "You'll have used up the King's favour on my behalf. And all in vain."
" Our behalf." Nan closed the gap between them and hugged Phebe. "Your apothecary friend wouldn't have sent Fownes to us if he thought he would disapprove of the arrangement. And of course he'll like you. Who wouldn't?" She pressed a kiss on the crown of Phebe's head.
"I'm more concerned that you won't like him. In that case, his staying would be out of the question."
"Would it?" Some of the tension left Phebe's shoulders.
"Aye. It's the shop that must past muster not you. And you've transformed it so much, only the most contrary could find fault. And if he's that sort of man, we're better off without him. There are four more names on Mr Bernard's list, remember."
The last of the tension eased. "I hope it won't come to that."
A distant knocking made them exchange a glance. "That must be him now." Nan released Phebe and stood back. "You had better admit Mr Fownes and show him around."
Phebe's eyes widened. "Me?"
"I'm only the landlady. It's you he'll have to work with." Seeing Phebe's doubt, she went on, her tone persuasive, "I'll join you in fifteen minutes. If he's going to take a dislike to you or the shop, he'll have done so by then."
Muttering under her breath, Phebe went downstairs.
Nan stood on the landing, ears pricked. That creak was the front door opening and those deep male tones must belong to Fownes. Time slowed to a crawl, and the urge to join Phebe grew stronger and stronger, kept in check only by pacing. At last, Nan could stand it no longer. It was still a few minutes short of the quarter hour, but she hurried downstairs.
Fownes stood next to an open drawer, congratulating Phebe on the quality of its contents and questioning her about the ailments it could be used to treat. Tall and skinny, the Adam's apple prominent in his long neck, he reminded Nan of a grey heron she had seen one early, misty morning in Madeley when returning from checking her snares.
At her entrance, he paused midsentence. "William Fownes, at your service." He smiled and bowed, and she made him a curtsey in return.
"Nan Shelton, at yours." He was younger than she had expected, and seemed familiar. She racked her memory but could not place him. "Have we met?"
His eyes lit up. "Briefly. At the King's Playhouse. I went to the tiring room once to congratulate the actresses on their performance. You were there."
Ah. She regarded him with interest. "You're a regular?"
He nodded. "At the Duke's Playhouse too. My wife and I enjoy a good play. Alas, we were not able to attend as often as we wished and then the plague struck." He cocked his head. "Is there any word yet when you will reopen?"
Nan glanced from him to Phebe. "Killigrew has heard - unofficially - it's to be the end of November."
"That's wonderful," said Phebe.
Nan nodded. "It will means hard work. He has three plays in mind-"
Phebe's eyes widened. "Three!"
"But we can talk about that later." She returned her gaze to their visitor. "What do you think of our shop, Mr Fownes?"
"It will do very nicely, " he said at once. "It's a little smaller than my premises in Friday Street were, but as well stocked and much better ordered than in Finch's time. I came in here once after a play - my wife was unwell - and Finch was very obliging, poor fellow. I was shocked to learn of his demise." He blinked as if something had just occurred to him. "As I was to learn of your father's death, Mrs Bonnick. Forgive me for not offering my condolences earlier. I knew him slightly. From our Guild meetings. A good man. He'll be much missed."
"Thank you," murmured Phebe.
"Such times. First plague. Then fire." He sighed. "Friday Street may be no more, but I count my blessings that I and my family escaped unscathed."
Nan allowed a moment's pause before returning to business. "What is your verdict, Mr Fownes? Would you be willing to apprentice Mrs Bonnick?"
He nodded. "If she'll have me."
Phebe flushed under their combined gazes. But after a moment, she nodded assent.
He beamed. "Even the shop sign," he gestured at the lettering visible through the window, "would require minimal amendment. Finch - Fownes - the names aren't so different."
"Are we agreed then?" asked Nan , relieved. "Is the arrangement to your liking?"
"Subject to my wife's approval. As it will affect her, she must also be satisfied before I can commit to any undertaking." He cocked his head. "May I fetch her? She has been taking refreshment at the Rose Tavern."
Nan and Phebe exchanged a glance. "Of course," said Phebe.
"Thank you. I won't be a moment."
When he had gone, they took the opportunity to discuss this unexpected turn of events.
"I thought things were going too well," said Phebe, with a grimace. "An easygoing fellow like that must be under his wife's thumb. Oh dear. What if she's a shrew?"
"If she likes a play she can't be too bad," said Nan . "And his concern for her opinion is a point in his favour. He'll give your views consideration rather than ride over you roughshod."
Phebe pursed her lips. "True."
A few minutes later Fownes returned, as promised, with his wife in tow, smelling of sweet marjoram and, more faintly, the Rose Tavern. Short and stout where her husband was tall and lean, Mrs Fownes had a glint in her eyes and a determined set to her jaw. While her husband looked on, his expression mild, she lost no time in interrogating Nan and Phebe about every aspect of the shop and position on offer. She was too polite to be classed a shrew, but she had a mind like a steel trap, and as she inspected the shop from stem to stern, Nan was glad Phebe had scoured it within an inch of its life.
At last, to everyone's relief, Mrs Fownes pronounced herself satisfied, and they lost no time in signing the papers Nan had had drawn up. As they shook hands, Nan couldn't quite believe her plan had come to fruition, and neither, from her slightly glazed expression and the smile hovering about her lips, could Phebe. Nan couldn't wait for the Fowneses to go so they could talk and then celebrate.
"Excellent, excellent." Fownes rubbed his hands. "Now all that remains is for the Guild of Apothecaries to approve the transfer of Mrs Bonnick's apprenticeship articles to me."
"The Earl of Clarendon has instructions to expedite the matter. He's awaiting the particulars," said Nan .
"Is he indeed?" Fownes blinked in astonishment. "So much the better. Which leaves only the matter of suitable lodgings for my family and me. As I think I mentioned earlier, a good friend has given us shelter for the present. But it's not convenient for Russell Street , and, besides, I'm reluctant to impose on him for much longer." He traded a look his wife who nodded agreement. "A lodging house close by would suit us better. Do you know of one with a vacancy?"
Nan did, as it happened. "Further along Russell Street ." She gestured in the direction of Covent Garden . "The house where Michael Mohun lodges has several comfortable rooms to let, or so he tells me."
"Excellent. In that case, will you provide my wife with the details, Mrs Shelton? And she'll go in a little while to-," he gave his wife a fond glance, "- negotiate terms. "
"Of course." She felt a twinge of pity for the unsuspecting landlord, and must have revealed something of her thoughts, for Fownes burst out laughing, making everyone smile, including his wife. Seeing Mrs Fownes' dimples, Nan caught a glimpse of the woman beneath the hard shell and realised she was not as indomitable as she pretended. She grinned.
"Then I believe we're in business," said Fownes, when he'd recovered his composure. "May I propose a toast to the inauguration of Fownes' Apothecary Shop?" His smiling glance went to Phebe's face. "Which in due course will become Bonnick's Apothecary Shop? Ahem? Is there a little something...?"
He looked around, expectant, and Phebe came to life with a start. " Nan , will you fetch that Canary wine and some cups?" Though she'd cautioned Nan against counting their chickens before they hatched, Nan had purchased the quarter-cask yesterday, just in case.
Saturday, 1st December 1666
Claiming the grand reopening of the King's Playhouse merited the expense, Nan had insisted on treating Phebe and the Fownses to an upper box. Phebe had never been in one before, and it was larger than she had anticipated, its twenty seats grouped between low partitions and raked so all had a view. She chose a seat at the front and, while Mr and Mrs Fownes sat beside her, exclaiming and waving to friends opposite, examined her surroundings.
The light percolating through the Playhouse's glazed cupola this Winter afternoon was dim, but numerous chandeliers and sconces enabled her to see clearly. Killigrew had spruced things up since her last visit - the auditorium's woodwork shone and the green fabric covering the benches in the Pit below had been renewed. The forestage was further away than she was used to, and the view beyond the proscenium arch a little more restricted, but her gold-tooled leather seat was much more comfortable than a backless bench.
Was a box worth the additional expense? Perhaps, she decided, but only because, though tickets for the first night of The Maid's Tragedy were in demand, Nan had persuaded Killigrew to let her have these for two shillings apiece instead of the usual four. Phebe felt no qualms on his behalf - he would be making a profit on the other seventeen seats.
Fownes leaned forward. "Does the stage seem different to you, my dear?" he asked his wife. "Weren't there six doors - three each side?"
She nodded. "And now there are four."
Something surfaced in Phebe's memory. "The stage has been widened."
"Ah." He nodded and sat back.
The musicians took their seats in front of the stage and struck up a tune, a little raggedly at first. Phebe tapped her foot in time to it, until a stir at the rear of the box announced the arrival of four middle-aged men, all chattering. With polite nods and no pause for breath, they took their seats. Phebe hoped they weren't going to talk throughout the play. Next came two elderly ladies accompanied by a young man with peach fuzz on his cheeks, and bringing up the rear a large party of gentlemen and their ladies, their cheeks flushed either from wine or the cold.
"No sign of the King." Fownes sounded surprised.
Phebe followed his gaze. The royal box contained several prominent faces, but the King's wasn't among them. She remembered Charles and his little Queen standing there, acknowledging the cheers and applause with smiles and waves. How long ago had that been? Nearly two years? Nan had bought her an orange. It must have been Twelfth Night. How much had happened since then.
"Matters of state must have detained him," said Mrs Fownes. "Or perhaps he prefers to wait for Monday's performance. They should have ironed out any wrinkles by then."
Fownes chuckled. "We've seen a few of those , haven't we? Remember The Tempest at the Duke's Playhouse?"
"Aye. A pity nothing detained him. " His wife was frowning at the front of the Pit, where the notorious Lord Sedley was entertaining his cronies.
Sedley was sporting the court fashion the King had introduced a few weeks ago: a black vest with a plain coat worn over it, and short ruffled breeches. Phebe had thought it looked strange, but she was growing accustomed to it. Its soberness would have met with her father's approval, she thought. Now if only the King would do something about those extravagant wigs.
A face was peering out at the audience from one of the windows above the proscenium arch, and Phebe recognised Kynaston. He spoke to someone out of sight. Nan ? Her entrance wasn't until Act 2 and her part, First Lady, was small. At least she had some lines. "Though only three," she had remarked with wry acceptance. Nan seemed more sanguine about such matters these days and Phebe flattered herself she had something to do with that. With no rent to pay for the roof over their heads, and the prospect of a steady income from the shop in two years' time, Nan 's dependence on employment at the playhouse was dwindling.
A 'roof over their heads' was too inadequate a description for the house in Russell Street . It had become home, thought Phebe with a glow of quiet satisfaction. And Nan had given her carte blanche to make whatever changes she pleased. In fact she had spent her last few evenings surrounded by bolts of fabric and trimmings suitable for new curtains and hangings. Nan had offered to help, of course, but needlework wasn't one of her strengths, so they had compromised, and Nan 's task was to keep Phebe entertained while she sewed.
With Nan to lighten her spirits during the evenings and Mr Fownes keeping her busy in the shop during the day, Phebe was finding her grief manageable, though it had a tendency to creep up on her at unexpected moments, and would do for years to come, she imagined. They had even entertained a few guests - if you could call it that. Nan had bought home a flagon of wine and some hot meat pies from the cookshop, and they had eaten them off their laps. The first to accept Nan's invitation to supper had been Kynaston and Beck - they'd been hinting for days, eager to see what Phebe had done with the house they had helped fumigate, and to tease Nan about her new role as landlady. No one except Phebe minded the ad hoc manner of the evening, and in the end she had relaxed and enjoyed herself.
She had also met Nan 's husband - a meeting she had been dreading. Two weeks ago, and uninvited, Sam and his lover had called to pay their respects. Seeing Nan and Sam together, acting like brother and sister, had eased a tension in Phebe of which she'd been unaware. While husband and wife talked, Phebe made small talk with Joseph. Next to Sam, he looked like an ugly dwarf, poor man, and at first she had found his Flemish accent impenetrable. But Nan had broached a cask of ale, and as the levels in their cups dropped, Phebe found him easier to talk to, especially when, in a confiding voice, he'd told her several amusing anecdotes about the handsome pair standing a few yards from them.
She was glad, though, when at last the two men departed, leaving a standing invitation to come to supper at their house in Southampton Street. And even gladder, when, perhaps detecting something different in Phebe's manner, a smiling Nan had taken her in her arms and kissed her. It had been so expert and so thorough a kiss, it made Phebe's head swim, and was just as thrilling as those they had shared in her dreams. Better, in fact. After that, the glances between them had been freighted with intimacy, and Phebe found herself unable to stop touching Nan and, whenever they were alone together, inviting her kisses.
The cessation of music drew Phebe back to her surroundings and she saw Kynaston's face had vanished from the window and one of the proscenium doors was opening. Out onto the forestage stepped a lone, grey-bearded figure she recognised at once: Killigrew. It was a moment before the chattering audience noticed him, then cheers and applause swept the auditorium. He strode to the centre of the forestage, halted, and struck a pose: his hand pressed to his heart. The cheering grew louder and was joined by the stamping of feet. It was a heartfelt 'welcome back' after a long, dark, and eventful year, and a wave of sadness washed over Phebe as it occurred to her that many who had once graced these seats and benches had not lived to witness it. Thank God, Nan and I did.
At last, Killigrew waved them to silence, and began to speak, but his words were much less inspiring than his simple gesture had been, and Phebe's thoughts wandered once more. Would Nan want to stay and celebrate with the other members of the company after tonight's performance, or would she hurry home? She hoped fervently the latter.
Just over a week ago, Phebe had been about to slide beneath her sheets when, as had become usual, the urge to seek out Nan overtook her. On previous nights, she had stifled it, then lain tossing and turning, consumed by thoughts of the woman lying in the other bedchamber. Only Nan had ever made her feel this way. (With a shudder, she remembered how Philip Hubland's attempts to kiss her had made her flesh creep.) A respectable woman must wait until her nuptials to experience the pleasures of the marriage bed, but Society didn't allow two women to marry. Was she to be denied the joys of sharing her body with someone she loved?
With a muffled exclamation and clad only in her nightshift, Phebe padded barefoot round to Nan's bedchamber. She rapped on the door, and waited, mouth dry and heart pounding. Suppose she doesn't want me? From her kisses, I believe she does but-
"Come in," came Nan's shout, as if she too had been unable to sleep.
Hands shaking, Phebe fumbled open the door.
She needn't have worried. Eyes twinkling, her smile warm, Nan had thrown back the corner of her sheet and patted the mattress in an invitation that Phebe accepted with relief and alacrity. She was a quick learner, and what followed, while awkward at first, banished all thoughts of sleep. They had awoken early and with much laughter, eager to repeat the lesson. And Phebe now knew with a deep inner certainty that her place was by Nan's side and in her bed.
Killigrew had finished speaking, and, to more muted applause this time, departed the stage. The curtain rose and the play began. Beaumont and Fletchers' tragedies weren't Phebe's favourite - she was here only to lend Nan support - so she amused herself trying to identify the actors beneath the makeup and costumes. Mohun, Hart, and Beck were instantly recognisable and their respective entrances drew huge applause. And wasn't that Kynaston, looking unusually masculine and stern?
Phebe's thoughts strayed. From the amused, knowing glances Mrs Fownes occasionally threw her and Nan, she had guessed how things stood between then, but as long as their business arrangement with her husband remained unaffected, she would not object. How long it would take her easygoing husband to notice was anyone's guess.
She was growing used to being his apprentice, and his medical treatises and tomes now jostled with those she had saved from Walbrook. His knowledge and experience matched her father's, but his manner was markedly different. Perhaps it was because he wasn't blinkered by having known her since she was a helpless child, but he had a confidence in her abilities that she found slightly unnerving. He had even suggested she might like to attend a Guild meeting when the Company of Apothecaries resumed business in their temporary headquarters. She had yet to make up her mind about that, but if she was to become an apothecary in her own right, she supposed must start acting like one.
Thanks to the advert they had placed in the local newssheet, trade was picking up. It had also brought them a surprise visitor: Dr Hodges, tapping a smart new walking cane, come to see how Phebe was managing without her father and pay his condolences. He was staying with a friend in Charing Cross until his Red Lyon Square premises could be rebuilt, he said, and occupying himself writing a pamphlet based on his experiences during the plague. Phebe asked him to put her down for a copy. The advert had also prompted a note from Mr Rundell enquiring after her health. He had moved his family to Southwark, where his tiresome daughters were no doubt still arguing, and his drapery business was up and running once more.
As for their other friends.... Tomorrow she and Nan were going to Houndsditch for dinner, as they did most Sundays. The walk was getting easier as the King's contractors and surveyors cleared away rubble and staked out plots, and it was a home-cooked hot meal and a chance to tease Graunt - Little Lizzie might not be the longed-for son, but she had him wrapped around her little finger. Nan and Phebe had agreed to be her godparents - the baptism was in a fortnight - and there were arrangements to discuss. Phebe also intended to take the opportunity to broach another topic - the hiring of a cookmaid for Russell Street - and the thought made her wince.
There were two garret rooms at the top of the house, so housing a servant should be no problem. And with Hannah and Deborah's assistance, finding her should be simple enough. But the cookmaid in question would know instantly that their separate bedchambers were only for appearances' sake and must be able to tolerate their unconventional sleeping arrangements. And in order to receive advice on that score, Phebe must first explain to their friends how things really stood.
Nan was of the opinion that they already knew. And besides, what was a little discomfort and humiliation if it got results? "I should know," she had added wryly, and Phebe knew she was thinking of Sophia Hamilton. Phebe wasn't so sure, Still, she was prepared to grit her teeth, cross her fingers, and throw herself on their mercy if it resulted in the hiring of a cookmaid as capable at those she had previously employed. Then our house will be clean and tidy and I'll be able to host Sunday dinner for a change.
Act 1 of The Maid's Tragedy drew to its close at last, and the actors departed the stage. A shrill whistle sounded backstage, and the stagehands sprang into action, removing the front set of painted wings, shutters, and borders with much puffing and panting to reveal those needed for Act II.
Phebe leaned forward, aware of Mrs Fownes' amusement but not minding in the least. For Nan had come into view at last, her height and presence drawing Phebe's attention like a powerful magnet. As she accompanied the other actresses down the sloping stage towards the forestage, Nan held aloft a lantern. Shouts and applause greeted all the women, especially Nell Gwyn, but Phebe's praise was reserved for Nan. She clapped until her hands hurt, until it dawned on her that she was the last one clapping and she stopped, her cheeks warm. By then, those striking blue eyes had located Phebe's whereabouts and Nan's eyelid was drooping in the suggestion of wink.
Phebe found her lips curving into a broad grin. Without Nan, her life would be unimaginably poorer and very, very different, and her heart brimmed with gratitude and pride. Whether she's an actress or not doesn't matter to me, and I'll make sure she knows it. She's mine and with God's grace always will be. And with a sigh of contentment Phebe gave herself over to the play.
The following books proved indispensable during the writing of this uber:
- 'Restoration London: Everyday Life in London 1660-1670' by Liza Picard
- 'The Diary of Samuel Pepys Vol X - Companion' compiled and edited by Robert Latham
- 'The First English Actresses: Women and Drama 1660-1700' by Elizabeth Howe
- 'The Great Plague' by A Lloyd Moote and Dorothy C. Moote
- 'By Permission of Heaven: The Story of the Great Fire of London' by Adrian Tinniswood