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The Goldsmith's Wife

Chapter One

April 1688, London – Helena

 

Helena sat in her private closet, a small room off the bedchamber with space enough for only a bureau and a chair, plus a small dresser that held her personal keepsakes. Guy, her husband of less than two years, had arranged the room especially for her. A turkey rug softened the polished wood floor and green silk-covered walls fitted with pewter candleholders provided an intimate atmosphere. On long winter evenings, Helena imagined she inhabited her own world there.

She set down the letter from her brother, Aaron that had arrived by messenger that morning and turned to the window, below which lay King Street in all its busy glory. Hooves rung on the cobblestones on their way to Palace Yard Gate at one end, beyond which lay the great Palace of White Hall. Pedestrians kept close to the tightly packed houses to avoid the filth from the road and the kennel that ran down the centre of the narrow street where household rubbish was hurled without a care for who was passing by.

The written word had been their only contact with Aaron these last two years. Despite the General Pardon granted to all rebels who had survived the Battle at Sedgemoor, he chose to remain in The Hague with what he called other like-minded souls determined to rid England of the Catholic King James the second.

After so many nights filled with recurring dreams of him lying dead on the battlefield after Monmouth’s flight, came the indescribable joy when that first letter came, telling her he had escaped and was alive and well in the Low Countries. Her heart thumping, she scanned the lines, noting Aaron must be low on funds again, for the page was dirty coloured paper rather than thick linen parchment.

 

“We are confident the army officers shall refuse to obey the orders of their Catholic commanders. This cannot be prescribed as mutiny, for their promotion is illegal, them not having taken the Test. This will leave the way open for us to join Prince William when he invades England.”

 

A mutiny in the army, and an invasion. She closed her eyes briefly and sighed. How could Aaron talk of treason so lightly? She found his vehemence baffling. England was home and no one was made to suffer for not being a Catholic as far as she could see. Londoners still talked of the Popish Plot, but the instigators were either dead or in prison where most believed they belonged.

She refolded the page carefully, resigned to the fact that, as with the others, this missive must be kept hidden, especially from her husband. If Guy knew Aaron wrote such sedition, he would insist she cease their correspondence altogether. She thrust the folded page to the back of a drawer, where her hand brushed the leather-bound journal in which she had recorded Monmouth’s progress in ’eighty-five. She drew the small volume out and weighed it in one hand, its leather fastening soft and slightly greasy from much handling.

How headstrong she had been that summer, when she had gone chasing into Somerset with no more than a manservant as escort in search of her menfolk.

Her return with the body of Uncle Edmund had been a bitter disappointment, only to discover her mother had been killed when the militia came to Loxsbeare. Of her missing father, there had been no news, not then or now.

The slam of the front door was followed by her maid’s rich West Country accent hailing a street hawker. Spring had finally come to London, and amongst the usual chants of the costermongers came those of the flower-sellers.

Chloe missed their native Devon with its soft, green hills and open spaces; a few early blooms in the house would be welcome after a grey and miserable winter.

Helena smiled, her gaze drifted to a painting on the wall; a wedding gift from her half-brother, Tobias. Commissioned especially for her, the painting depicted the square tower of Exeter’s north gate from the city side, its arched gatehouse open to reveal a steep hill that dipped between rows of tightly packed houses, then up St David’s Hill to the Weare Cliffs. On the left, stood Loxsbeare Manor, Helena’s childhood home, on a route she had once travelled every day of her life.

The scene reminded her of a happier time, when Loxsbeare used to be her family home. The estate was seized after her father, Sir Jonathan Woulfe, joined Monmouth’s rebellion three years previously. Lord Miles Blanden, their erstwhile friend and neighbour, betrayed them to the authorities and claimed the estate for himself.

Sometimes, Helena’s grief was no more than a fleeting shadow that intruded into her day, brushed aside with ease. At others, the loss of half her family engulfed her with a choking sadness, her former life a place and time she preferred not to visit too often.

A knock on the door made her jump, dragging her thoughts back to the present. On her command to enter, her manservant, Glover, handed her a folded square of parchment.

Helena rose slowly as she skimmed Alyce’s handwriting.

 

—Celia has begun her labour earlier than expected and your presence is urgently required —

 

“Summon a hackney, Glover.” Then as he turned to go, she added, “No, wait. A sedan would be quicker.”

 

* * *

 

 

Helena fretted all the way to Saffron Hill, chewing the base of her thumb in frustration at every cart, packhorse, and carriage that impeded her chair.

Cannot these chairmen run any faster?

Celia had been her confidant through those first days in London when she and her younger brother, Henry, had come to live at Lambtons Inn with the Devereuxs. They had been light-hearted girls then looking forward to an exciting future. Now Celia was a contented matron, married to Ralf Maurice, a goldsmith like her own husband, Guy.

At Celia’s house, Helena pushed past the startled footman who opened the door, and ran up the stairs. A timid maid pressed herself against the wall as Helena sailed toward the figure of Alyce at the end of the corridor.

“I’m so glad you are here, Helena.” Alyce’s face was drained of colour beneath a layer of face paint. “Celia has been asking for you.” No longer the flirtatious beauty and chatelaine of one of London’s best chophouses, now merely an anxious parent.

The atmosphere inside Celia’s room was hot and cloying, the single curtain obscuring the closed window and a roaring fire lit, though the weather was warm.

With Alyce’s views on noxious London air, Helena expected this, but the prone and immobile figure in the bed filled her with foreboding. She took her friend’s limp hand in her shaking one, gazing into clouded eyes that displayed no recognition.

Celia keened in a continual, low monotone through slightly parted lips, the mound of her swollen belly thrusting the bedclothes obscenely upward.

“She’s unaware of what is happening to her.” Alyce kept her voice low. “There is no respite to the pain. We tried to coax her into the birthing chair, but she resisted.” She indicated the ugly object that looked as if it crouched in the corner. “Now she is beyond that, and worse, the child is not moving.”

“Where’s the midwife?” Helena gave the room a sweeping glance, but they were alone.

“She left an hour ago saying there was nothing more she could do and I must send for the chirurgeon.”

“And have you?”

“Of course.” Alyce gaped, offended.

“I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to imply you were not doing your best.” Helena did not add that in her opinion, Alyce should have engaged a Dutch midwife for Celia. They were known for their professionalism and would never have abandoned a woman in labour.

The door clicked open and Helena glanced up eagerly, but it was only a servant with a pile of linen, followed by a second with a pitcher of water. “Leave those things.” Alyce dismissed them.

Helena changed the warm, damp cloth on Celia’s brow for a fresh, cold one, though her efforts had no visible effect. At best it gave her something to do to help fight down the panic which clutched at her chest. Her restless fingers smoothed the damp hair back from her friend’s clammy forehead. Celia’s pillow was soaked and her nightgown clung wetly to her shoulders.

A sharp tap came on the door that preceded the entrance of Alyce’s younger daughter.

“The chirurgeon has arrived, Mother.” Her dour expression lifted when she caught sight of Helena. “I’m so glad you came.” Her eyes were dark with fear and her lower lip quivered in response to Helena’s greeting, which only confirmed her impression things were dire with Celia’s labour. Phebe never cried.

“Have him shown up, Phebe,” Alyce said. “And remain downstairs.” At the girl’s protest she went on, “it wouldn’t be appropriate for you to stay. You’re an unmarried girl.” Alyce gave her a push and closed the door, turned round and leaned against it. “I know you feel that was cruel of me. Phebe loves her sister, but I don’t want her witnessing—” she broke off with a sob as she gestured toward the bed.

“I understand.” Helena’s admiration for Alyce increased. How terrible to watch both her daughters suffering.

A sallow faced man in black long coat and sandy-coloured peruke was shown into the room. He went straight to Alyce and made an elegant leg.

“Never mind me, you imbecile!” Alyce slapped her skirt in frustration. “See to my daughter!”

The man stepped back, obedient, one brow raised in affront. “A difficult time for you,” he murmured in mitigation.

Helena still had no idea of his name.

The elderly woman who had followed him in waddled to the bed and began palpating Celia’s belly without a word to anyone. In her plain brown gown and white apron and cap, she looked officious enough, though she could have been a nosy neighbour for all Helena knew.

“Who is she?” Helena drew Alyce away from the bed, allowing the doctor and the woman to examine their patient.

“I’ve never seen her before,” Alyce replied. “I have an awful feeling she’s the woman chirurgeons bring in when they suspect the worse.”

The grim look the doctor exchanged with the woman just then appeared to confirm Alyce’s impression.

“Does she have a name?” Helena asked. “So I can be sure to avoid her.”

“Barlow, I think,” Alyce said, twisting her hands together

Her examination complete, the woman mumbled something indistinct to the doctor, who nodded, identical looks of dismay on both their faces.

Helena wanted to scream at them that this shouldn’t be happening this way. Where were the gossips, the card games, and the wine? There should be laughter and celebration. Celia should be tired, but happy, not still and white. And that awful moaning tore at Helena’s heart.

She glanced at Alyce’s face, either to seek comfort or offer it, she wasn’t sure. The siren of Lambtons looked suddenly old and defeated.

The midwife, if that is what she was, lifted Celia’s unresisting head and teased a few drops of liquid from a brown bottle through her slack lips. “It will speed up the pains, so it may be over quicker.” Mistress Barlow’s rough voice answered Helena’s unspoken enquiry.

She prayed she was right.

Minutes dragged into an hour and Celia’s groans persisted, growing louder at times and then so soft as to be almost inaudible.

Then the activity round the bed became more urgent. At a signal from the chirurgeon, Helena stepped back, firmly excluded from the proceedings. Even Alyce could only stand to one side looking on, with no part to play.

More linens and hot water were called for, and delivered, the room filling with people and then emptying again. After a final tussle, where the patient remained placid and uncooperative, it was over.

Celia had delivered a stillborn son.

With swift, capable movements, the woman bound the tiny form in a linen cloth, then carried the bundle to where Alyce stood, hips clamped into a thin line. She gave a brief, anguished nod. Just as the midwife flicked back a corner of the cloth, Helena gave a sob and turned away.

At the pressure of Alyce’s hand on her arm, she turned back, but stared at the floor as the woman covered the tiny body with a cloth.

“Are you quite well, Helena?” she asked as they stepped onto the landing.

“Me?” Helena snorted. “I’m simply a coward and no help to you at all.”

“No one could have made the outcome different but God. You are not responsible.”

“I know, but… Oh, Alyce, I’m mortal sorry, but I cannot stay here.” Helena glanced through a gap in the door and then back to Alyce’s sad face. “You must think I’m a selfish woman, but I simply cannot bear it. Because, because—”

“Because you are with child,” Alyce finished for her. “I guessed as much.” Her kindness evoked more tears until Helena had to grope into her pocket for a handkerchief. “It’s still early yet, but seeing Celia suffer in that way, when she is the kindest of souls, is so unfair. I had no idea things could go so dreadfully wrong.”

“You must not dwell on such things. Sad feelings may transfer to your child. I’m very happy for you,” she said gently. “And Celia will be too when she wakes.”

“She will recover?” Helena wiped tears from her cheek with a hand that trembled.

“There is no fever as yet, so we must remain hopeful.”

“But her baby?” Helena’s eyes filled again.

“The chirurgeon has assured me there will be more children. God has his reasons for taking this one.”

“Is that what you really believe?” Helena’s voice rose. “That her child has been taken from her as some sort of divine plan?”

“Perhaps not.” Alyce shrugged. “But life is cruel, and it might comfort my Celia.”

“A searcher must be sent for,” the haughty chirurgeon interrupted them. Then in response to Alyce’s stricken face, added, “though in this case there is no question it was a natural death.”

“I should hope not,” Alyce bridled, her chin quivering.

“I’ll go,” Helena said, her gaze lingering for a moment on the tiny, wrapped form lying so still on the end of Celia’s bed. “I require an interview with Master Maurice first.” The doctor pulled on his gloves without looking at Helena.

“Of course” Helena’s hackles rose at being addressed like a servant. But then how could he know who she was. Once they were outside in the hallway, she paused and turned towards him. “Tell me, sir. Will your patient live?”

He wrinkled his nose as if her question were unanswerable. “I’ll have to relinquish that responsibility to God.”

“And if she dies, will you give your fee to God?”

He blinked, his slack mouth opened and then closed again soundlessly.

Dismissing him, Helena flung away and descended the stairs, not caring if he followed her or not.

In the hall, she waylaid a houseboy and sent him to fetch the searcher, before entering the salon where Ralf waited. A hopeful expression leapt into his face when he saw the chirurgeon at her shoulder.

Helena fought her distress as the man told Ralf his son had not lived long enough to draw breath.

“Mistress Maurice has not been damaged by the birth, sir,” he said with well-practiced gravity. “The labour progressed almost normally in its final stages. I’m confident there will be other children.”

Ralf’s boyish face crumpled and his cheeks were wet with tears. “How do I tell her she cannot have this one?”

Helena laid her hand on his forearm. “Her mother will tell her, Ralf, if you cannot.” He gave her a look of such gratitude, Helena’s own eyes filled.

How unfair life was. If ever a man was meant to be a father, it was sweet, gentle Ralf.

The chirurgeon continued to offer empty condolences and unable to listen to any more, Helena retreated to the hall where she instructed a servant to hail a sedan, and then grabbed her cloak from the footman and left.

Helena sat slumped in a corner with the flaps secured as the sedan bumped and swayed on its way back to King Street, shame burning inside her for her lack of courage at not being present when Celia received the worst news given to any woman.

That night Helena spent in her husband’s arms, his quiet sympathy both a surprise and a comfort, when he could be pragmatic about most things.

“You must return to Saffron Hill tomorrow,” Guy whispered against her hair. “Celia will be awake by then and hopefully recovering. She won’t understand why you would stay away.”

“I know.” Helena whispered back. She would face that in the morning. For now, she just wanted to snuggle into his embrace and dream good dreams.

 

 

Chapter Two

June 1688, London – Helena

 

Helena entered a scene of bustling chaos at Lambtons Inn, where patrons filled the taproom, and dining halls. They crowded the wide staircase and spilled from the upper rooms holding loud conversations across the galleries.

The timbered building, built in old King Henry’s time, occupied the width of four shop fronts in Holborn’s main thoroughfare, not far from the newly refurbished St. Andrews church. Furnivals and Thavies inns lay in the same street, but neither could match the grandeur of Lambtons, whose black-stained beams crisscrossed its wide façade comprised of pristine white painted plasterwork and the inn sign in green and gold.

During her initiation into London life three years before, Helena had discovered that society divided themselves into those who dined at Pontacks in Abchurch Lane, and the more discerning, who frequented Lambtons in High Holborn to partake of the best food in comfortable opulence.

Lubbock, the Devereux manservant, bustled through from the rear and took her cloak. His periwig sat askew and he appeared more harassed than usual, murmuring his apologies for not being there to greet her.

“Has something occurred?” Helena asked, but he was saved from answering by the appearance of William Devereux.

He was still, without exception, the most devastatingly handsome man Helena had ever seen. Sometimes, when she came upon him unexpectedly, he reminded her so sharply of the late Duke of Monmouth, she found herself staring at him in near disbelief.

“I shall take care of Mistress Palmer, thank you, Lubbock.” The manservant backed away and William took his place. “I’ve not decided whether you are more beautiful in the mornings, or in the evenings by candlelight.” He lifted her hand and brushed his lips across her fingertips. His liquid brown eyes danced on the edge of laughter, combined with a rich, deep voice and a disarming smile distorted by an intriguing scar that cut a straight line down his upper lip.

Whether the result of a childhood accident or he had been born with it, Helena couldn’t tell. However, whenever she was in his company her gaze would drift to that slight imperfection and, like now, her heart would jump with desire.

Her hand that rested on William’s proffered arm shook, but she tried to ignore the effect he had on her. She was a married woman and refused to let her appreciation of William’s charm and brooding good looks detract her from loyalty to her husband.

“You must be exceedingly bored, sir, to offer such transparent compliments.” She cast a swift look along the hallway, but there was no sign of Guy.

Helena reminded herself why she had chosen not to encourage William in a romantic sense during her days at Lambtons. His physical charms were obvious, but she doubted he could have offered the security and respectability Guy had, or his constancy. She had thought her marriage to Guy would make her immune to William’s charms, yet it still surprised her how his presence unsettled her.

“How cruel you are, Mistress, when I am simply an admirer of true beauty.”

She rolled her eyes in mock annoyance and made to brush past him, but he plucked her hand from his sleeve with both of his, and lifting it his lips, pressed a lingering kiss on her fingers.

Alyce Devereux bustled toward them appear at the end of the hallway, a vision in salmon pink overlaid with black lace. William turned towards his mother but though he dropped Helena’s hand he did not release it.

“Helena, my dear, how lovely you decided to join us.” Alyce caressed William’s cheek absently with one hand as she talked. “Guy arrived this half hour since.” Her speculative gaze settled on each of them in turn. “Have you heard the news?”

“Mistress Palmer has only this moment arrived, Mama.” He winced as the hubbub in the hall rose to a crescendo. “Unless her chairmen proved unusually vocal, I assume she’s still in ignorance.”

Helena fidgeted, uncomfortable with his abrupt change of manner, which lent their encounter an air of intrigue where none existed. Added to which her hand still lay in his, though she did not know how to reclaim it discreetly.

“Come into the salon and we’ll tell you all about it.” Alyce ushered them to the private quarters at the back of the inn, where her two daughters sat with Robert, Ralf and Guy who occupied an assortment of upholstered chaises and high-backed chairs set round a marble fireplace; empty now but for a bowl of dried flowers and herbs that lent the room a country feel.

Robert left his chair and advanced on Helena with outstretched arms, kissing her soundly on the mouth. His place was taken by Guy, who brushed her cheek lightly with his lips then asked in a discreet murmur why she was late.

“I was not aware I was,” she responded with a bland smile, aware he would not chastise her in company. Not that he was a bully, but he expected his word to be taken as final between them.

She took in what looked to be a new sky-blue long coat with turned back yellow cuffs with a look that brought a slight flush to his cheeks, though she neither commented nor begrudged him spending money on himself. He worked hard and earned all he had.

William stood by the chaise where Celia reposed like a duchess, still pale but evidently recovering from her ordeal. Planting a gentle kiss on her forehead, he slid his fingers along her cheek, while she gave him a sad nod in response to his enquiry as to her health.

William returned Phebe’s exuberant hug and Alyce’s motherly caress, with enthusiasm; his carelessness of women excluded his mother and sisters, whom he treated like princesses.

Watching them, Helena experienced a pang of distress as she recalled her own father and how much she missed him. No one had heard a word from him since Sedgemoor and she often wondered where he was now.

When William stole Phebe’s seat, their subsequent bout of light-hearted banter attracting Alyce’s censure, watched benignly by Robert from his oversized chair. Phebe’s dark vivaciousness matched her mother’s and was a perfect foil for her sister’s fair looks and gentle nature.

While envying their closeness, Helena caught Celia’s pensive expression and instant shame surged at her having felt sorry for herself. Every life had its tragedies.

“Did you hear the bells, Helena?” Phebe asked.

“I did indeed,” Helena replied, summoning a smile. “Has something happened?”

“Indeed it has,” Alyce said in a tone which promised speculation and gossip. “Queen Mary Beatrice has given birth to a son.”

“I thought Her Majesty was not due for another month?” Helena stared at her in surprise.

“Well, she’s dropped early.” Robert sniffed. “And it is not good news either. A Catholic prince could prove disastrous to the country. Our saving grace lay in the fact we had Anne Hyde’s girls, the Princesses Mary and Anne to succeed the king. Now this.”

Robert’s reference to the late Duchess of York made Helena’s lips twitch. She recalled her father once referring to Anne Hyde as a scheming commoner who had trapped King Charles’ brother into marriage.

“They’re talking of nothing else in the taproom,” Phebe said, then at her mother’s disapproving glare, added, “or so Lubbock says.”

Helena suppressed a smile. Alyce discouraged her daughters from venturing into that particular section of the inn, declaring it was full of ‘low folk’.

Helena pressed a kiss on Celia’s pallid cheek. “You’re looking well,” she lied, lowering herself onto the chaise beside her. In fact Celia had lost weight and blue shadows still sat beneath her eyes.

“She gains strength daily,” Ralf said, as if reassuring himself. He placed a cushion at his wife’s back, then lifted her feet onto a footstool. “I thought the company would do her good, and that we might celebrate the royal birth together.” He gestured theatrically with both arms, flushing when Robert glowered at him. “Or not.”

“’Twas a lovely notion, Ralf.” Alyce tutted at Robert and cupped Ralf’s cheek briefly in one hand.

“How unkind of you to be disparaging about the queen, father.” Celia shuffled backwards into the cushions, her cupid bow mouth in a soft pout. “Her Majesty has been most unfortunate in motherhood.”

Ralf adopted a beaten puppy look, at which Celia slapped his arm. “Don’t look so stricken, Ralf. I’m not upset by it, truly. I pray the child remains healthy, no matter the implication for the country.”

“A very feminine, but I must say clouded view, Mistress,” Guy said. Helena threw him a furious look, and he added, “Which is the true Christian one to have.” His look of silent apology in Helena’s direction sent confidence surging through her. Since the confirmation of her own pregnancy, his heightened devotion was empowering, yet at the same time, often left her confused.

She had married Guy Palmer to obtain respectability and a secure future, never imagining he would be so passionate in his attentions. Although far from finding his demands onerous, he woke in her a sensuality she had never anticipated. The fan in her hand slowed its arc as their previous night’s lovemaking replayed pleasantly in her head, interrupted by Celia’s nudge to her ribs.

“I said, what do you think, Helena?”

“I’m sorry,” Helena forced her thoughts back into the room, “what do I think about what?”

“That the queen’s child is a Catholic plot to deceive us all?”

“I doubt that vapid Italian woman has the wit to fool the entire court.” Alyce made a moue with her lips.

“Why now, after fifteen years without a living child should she produce a healthy prince?” Robert held his hands out in appeal. “I smell a papist plot.”

“She has had children before, although none lived very long.” Alyce sniffed, implying this was an acquired weakness.

“When he grows up to look like his father, everyone will see the truth,” Celia nibbled a square of marchpane from a tray Ralf placed in front of her.

Possessing no deviousness in her own character, Celia was incapable of imagining it in others. On this occasion, Helena agreed with her; she had heard nothing but good reports of the queen, her religion notwithstanding.

“A daughter would not have caused all this fuss.” Phebe plucked a sweetmeat from the tray.

“If the babe was a girl, my dear, no one would give a fig,” Robert sneered. “Besides, his parentage may well be in question.”

In response to Helena’s shocked look, Phebe sighed. “They’re saying little James Francis was smuggled into the queen’s bed in a warming-pan.”

“What nonsense.” Alyce snapped her fan shut. “The queen’s ladies-in-waiting as well as the, the entire Privy Council remained in the birthing room throughout.”

“The infant did well to avoid infection in such a crowd,” Helena said, earning a bark of laughter from Phebe and an amused grin from William.

“What purpose would a warming pan serve in a birthing chamber?” Alyce was scornful.

“I believe I can explain why,” Helena began, drawing all eyes. “The builders renovating White Hall were particularly noisy, so Her Majesty removed to St James Palace. As she wasn’t expected, the birthing chamber wasn’t prepared.”

“Henry told you that, I suppose?” Phebe sniffed.

“It is all too bad about the child,” Robert continued a conversation he appeared reluctant to abandon. “What with all the trouble over the bishops.”

“Bishops, Father?” Celia blinked. “What bishops?”

Robert sighed, exasperated, while Guy turned a chuckle into a cough.

“Celia, the bishops are the talk of the city.” Alyce threw back her head in an exuberant laugh, revealing a white throat remarkably unlined for a woman past her fortieth year.

“King James,” Helena said gently, sympathetic with Celia’s evident confusion, “has issued a second Declaration of Indulgence to allow greater religious tolerance.”

“Is that not a good thing?” Celia blinked, bewildered. “The late king deprived hundreds of dissenting preachers of their living. Perhaps the new king intends to allow everyone to worship as they wish?”

“It’s the thin end of the wedge.” Robert poured himself more wine, holding the jug aloft in a silent question. “The king wants to abolish the ‘Test’, though some of the clergy refused to read out the Declaration in the churches. He has vent his spleen at their disobedience by sending seven of them to the Tower.”

Ralf held his glass beneath the spout into which Robert slopped the scarlet liquid angrily, then offered the same to Guy, who shook his head and backed away. “Seditious libel indeed,” Robert muttered almost to himself. “What the bishops did was uphold the tenets of the Anglican Church.” He returned the jug to the table and plucked a clay pipe from the mantle, turning it over in restless fingers.

“Calm yourself, husband,” Alyce warned as Robert’s face turned a deep puce. “Or I shall have to send for the chirurgeon to bleed you.”

“I don’t require bleeding!” The pipe broke and he threw the pieces into the fireplace. He ruined more of them in temper than he ever smoked. “The king is playing right into the hands of that Stadtholder, Prince William, who’s waiting for his chance to claim his wife’s inheritance.” “The king’s preferment of Catholics in the army has already caused discontent,” Helena repeated what Aaron had written in his letter. “In which case, would not Prince William’s arrival be welcome?”

Guy tilted his head and looked straight at her, one eyebrow raised in silent rebuke.

Too late, she remembered he regarded opinionated women as unfeminine, which always puzzled her, for he admired Alyce; yet there was no one more feminine, nor more opinionated.

“Many wish the prince would intervene, Mistress Palmer. But at what cost?” William said with all seriousness.

Helena exchanged a sympathetic smile with William, content in the knowledge that unlike Guy, he valued her intellect. She could still feel his touch on her fingers, and the tantalising way he had rubbed them gently in his while his mother had stood less than five paces away.

“King James wants to be like King Louis,” Guy interjected, “who runs roughshod over his own clergy and believes Church, State, Parliament, and the bishops all belong to him.”

“There will be another civil war. I’m sure of it.” Robert’s glass clattered to the table. “And this time it will be the Prince of Orange who starts it.”

“Prince William is on the verge of war with the French,” Ralf began. “If he moves against King James, King Louis will join the fight. But if Louis attacks Germany instead, with whom he has his own quarrel, Prince William will have a clear run at England.”

“Very succinct, Ralf.” William regarded his brother-in-law with rare admiration.

Celia frowned. “What makes you think Prince William will invade England?”

“Common knowledge,” Guy replied idly, keeping his voice low. “Correspondence between the Dutch to their English spies have been crossing the North Sea for months. The prince is simply waiting for a formal invitation.”

Talk of spies set Helena’s nerves on edge. She fidgeted and stared at her hands while the conversation went on around her. Despite the Devereux’s empathy for Sir Jonathan Woulfe’s loyalties, Helena did not know how they would view her brother’s schemes. Plotting against a king, even an unpopular one, was still treason.

“With such a clear view of the situation, I am surprised you do not join the navy, Will,” Robert said. “I could still get you a commission.”

Robert called in favours all over town to secure him the rank of an officer, but William resisted. An image of William in uniform came into her head, but she pushed it away; her face already felt warm. “As an Englishman, and an Anglican, I cannot, in all conscience, attack a navy that is attempting to protect my own religion.” William stared down his patrician nose at his father. “I would hate to be on the wrong side when the time comes.”

“Which side is the wrong one, Will?” Phebe asked.

“Why, the wrong one of course,” William said, his languorous eyes revealing nothing.

“You believe Prince William will come then?” Helena pushed for a sensible answer, aware he preferred to hide his astute mind behind lazy responses.

“It’s likely.” His shrug was dismissive. “We should also not forget that the Dutch fleet far outweighs our own.”

“Enough about invasions and wars,” Alyce snapped. “I wish to talk of something pleasant. In fact, I have a fancy to visit the theatre tomorrow afternoon. They are performing Shadwell’s The Squire of Alsatia.”

“Excellent notion, Mama.”

“May we also have the pleasure of your company at Drury Lane, Mistress Palmer?” William turned intense brown eyes on Helena. “Anne Bracegirdle is a Venus of seventeen years, and her performance is not to be missed.”

“I-” Helena faltered, her cheeks warm.

“If you have a yen to see Mistress Bracegirdle, Helena,” Guy said, cutting off her feeble refusal. “I have no objection to your visiting the theatre.”

“That’s settled then,” William said, triumphant. “We’ll all go together.”

Helena flicked open her fan to disguise the sudden warmth suffusing her face. Just when she had decided William was ignoring her, he flirted with her again.

Celia’s eyelids started to droop, which precipitated Ralf pleading her recuperation as an excuse for taking their leave. Their going precipitated the party breaking up in a flurry of cloaks, gloves and farewell kisses.

Helena turned from embracing Alyce to take her farewell of Robert, when William appeared beside her. He snatched the hand she had extended to Robert and pressed his lips against her knuckles.

“Goodbye, Mistress Palmer.” His voice was a purr. “Until tomorrow then.”

“Tomorrow,” Helena murmured. She reclaimed her hand and followed Guy to the carriage. At the door, she turned back to where William lounged against the doorframe, his arms crossed and a teasing grin on his handsome face.

Had she imagined it, or had William nipped her fingers with his teeth?

 

 

Chapter Three

November 1688, Exeter – Nathan

 

Nathan Bayle ducked his head to clear the low lintel of The Ship inn in St Martin’s Lane, and stepped into the ancient, panelled room where Sir Walter Raleigh was once a frequent guest. Its walls were blackened from years of blazing fires set in the massive hearth, the furnishings old and scarred, but sturdy; in all, a comfortable place to spend an hour or two.

The atmosphere clogged with pipe smoke stung Nathan’s eyes as he joined his father-in-law who sat with his youngest son, Robin, in a corner beside the leaded window that looked onto the narrow cobbled street.

On his way to the table, Nathan waylaid the landlord’s wife. “Another jug of ale for my friend here, and a tankard for me, if you please, Matty.”

“Anything for Master Ffoyle.” Matty offered Nathan a distracted smile, which she then turned on the Worshipful Master of Clothworkers.

Ignoring her, Samuel kicked a chair out from beneath the table, gesturing at Nathan to sit.

Matty gave up and left.

“Always said that one was too much for Tobias to handle,” Samuel said, gesturing Nathan into the remaining chair.

Older than him, Matty Lumm was pretty, but hard-nosed, and already the mother of three boys when she and Tobias married. Her dark looks and flirtatious smile reminded Nathan of Tobias’ mother, Emily. When he had mentioned this fact once, Tobias was scornful. Nathan kept his own counsel these days.

Tobias spotted the new arrival and raised a hand in greeting before he sauntered towards them.

Nathan nodded in acknowledgement. Tobias looked nothing like an innkeeper. Tall and darkly handsome in an embroidered long coat and breeches, Tobias looked nothing like an innkeeper. In a crisp white shirt and bucket topped leather boots, and his dark curly hair, he resembled a pirate captain.

When the Rebellion of eighty-five had failed, rather than continue his tenure as steward of Loxsbeare Manor under its new owner, Lord Blanden, Tobias had taken over The Ship, thus allowing his father, Jim Lumm to spend his last illness free from worry. This first decision was easy to understand, though the second surprised Nathan. However, Tobias had settled back into his childhood home unexpectedly well, proving himself an excellent host.

Tobias ruffled Robin’s hair. “You look well, young Robin. I trust your lovely sisters enjoy good health?”

The boy flushed and Samuel beamed. “Tell us the news then, innkeeper.” Samuel put a teasing inflection on the word, moving his chair aside to make room.

Nathan watched them, bemused at the camaraderie between these two, whose station in life could not be more different. Samuel Ffoyle was the Worshipful Master of Clothworkers, a Guild member and an influential man in the city; Tobias, the patron of an ordinary inn.

Tobias dragged a stool forward, swinging a leg over it in one fluid motion and rested his arms on the table. “Lord Mordaunt arrived with four troops of horse at the West Gate this morning, but the porter shut it against them.”

“I shouldn’t think that pleased Prince William.” Samuel drained his remaining ale.

Tobias signalled to a serving girl to bring more ale. She bustled over at a run, sliding the brimming jugs onto the table with an inviting smile at Tobias. An impatient wave of his hand dismissed her. “An alderman opened the gate eventually,” Tobias went on, oblivious of the smouldering look the girl threw him over her shoulder. “Then Mordaunt ordered the porter not to shut it again on pain of death.”

“They wouldn’t barricade the city gates against Prince William, surely?” Samuel laughed, but to Nathan, the sound was hollow. No one could be sure how the prince’s men would be received, but his arrival was imminent and the atmosphere in the city felt heavy with tension.

Tobias looked sceptical. “It’s possible. The other Aldermen have all declared allegiance to King James.”

Nathan pondered his words, while Samuel turned to stare through the window in silence.

“When is Prince William coming?” Robin clutched his tankard of small beer tightly in both hands.

“Soon.” Nathan caught Robin’s eye and winked. He had a rare fondness for this youngest child of Samuel’s. Physically small for thirteen, he was Nathan’s constant shadow, a fact Samuel did not appear to resent.

Tobias tilted his stool against the wall behind him and leaned back, just as the door opened to reveal a stockily-built man in a heavily embroidered blue long coat and a full-bottomed wig too big for his head. He carried an expensive japan cane topped with silver which he leaned on heavily as he advanced into the room. The room fell silent as the newcomer’s sweeping gaze took in the room, coming to rest on Samuel. Smirking, he approached the table, his gait hampered by a pronounced limp.

Nathan took in his bandaged left leg and frowned.

“Fell off his horse,” Tobias said, catching his look. “Nasty wound too.”

“Shame.” Nathan bit his lip to prevent a smile.

Lord Blanden had not only claimed the Woulfe’s estates, he had converted to Catholicism and was now one of King James’ Ecclesiastical commissioners, seeking out anti-papist feeling amongst his neighbours. Not a popular man, he might have been described as handsome had he not worn a perpetual snarl.

“Good morrow, Master Ffoyle.” Blanden managed to make the innocuous greeting sound like an insult.

“Good morrow, my lord,” Robin piped up in his high, boyish voice.

Nathan bit his lip to prevent a laugh as a ripple of amused laughter worked its way round the room.

Samuel’s lips twitched, but he did not reprimand Robin.

Lord Blanden’s face darkened, and he jutted his chin forward. “You’ll not be making jokes at my expense soon, Ffoyle.” He spat the name out as if it tasted bitter.

“I’m unaware I made any joke, my lord.” Samuel kept his voice bland, and sipped slowly from the tankard in his hand.

“You’ll not be in a position to insult me much longer.” Blanden sneered, his complexion blotched red. “It appears your loyalty is in question, and the city won’t tolerate traitors. Especially one who is the Worshipful Master of Clothworkers.”

A small moan escaped Robin’s lips and he fidgeted on his seat.

Nathan clamped a hand down on his shoulder. “Be still, lad,” he whispered.

Robin obeyed.

The room fell silent as jugs hovered in mid-air, their owners’ curious faces turned in their direction. Samuel nodded to one or two familiar patrons, who offered thin smiles before ducking their heads away. He placed his tankard on the table, rising to his feet to tower over Lord Blanden. Nathan prepared to jump between them, but Samuel was icily calm.

“If I were you, my lord, I would look to your own conscience before casting doubt on good Anglican citizens.”

At a nearby table a man snorted, another spluttered a mouthful of ale down the front of his coat. Tobias’ chuckle brought Blanden’s head swinging round to level a hard stare at him, but Tobias presented an expression of bland innocence.

Samuel cocked his head as though listening, one finger raised. “What do I hear? The sound of forty thousand soldiers approaching the West Gate? I wonder who it might be.” He turned to his son. “Do you know, boy?”

Robin grinned. “Of course I do, sir. Prince William is coming.”

Samuel held his hands outstretched, palms upward. “There you see. Even my son knows how the wind blows.”

Blanden’s eyes narrowed, but he stood his ground, exhibiting little signs of a man being publicly humiliated. This bothered Nathan. Blanden was too calm.

The inn door creaked open to admit two officers of the watch.

Heads dipped to jugs of ale and an odd nervous cough accompanied the sound of booted feet stomping across the room.

“These men want a word with you, Master Ffoyle.” Blanden’s grin widened.

Nathan pulled himself to his feet beside Samuel, his hand still clamped on Robin’s shoulder. The boy trembled beneath his touch, his eyes round and fearful as they went from his father to Nathan and back again.

The nearest officer handed Samuel a roll of parchment. “Master Ffoyle,” the officer read aloud. “You are to appear before the alderman and magistrates at the Guildhall on the morrow to make your oath of allegiance to His Majesty King James.” He handed the parchment to Samuel before raking the room with a surly glance before he and his companion strode out.

Lord Blanden followed, paused at the door and turned back. “Now we shall see who the traitor is.” His eyes glittered with malice as he left, slamming the door behind him.

Samuel’s hands visibly shook as he unrolled the parchment, staring at it in silence.

Robin looked on, his face stricken.

Nathan’s smile intended to reassure the boy, but his own insides felt queasy. He could only imagine how Samuel was feeling.

“What does it say, Master Ffoyle?” Tobias placed both hands on the table and read over his shoulder.

“Very little, other than I must appear at the Guildhall.”

“I’ve never heard of such a thing. Has anyone else in the city received orders like this?” Nathan glanced round at the other patrons, meeting blank stares and shrugs.

“What shall you do, Father?” Robin’s eyes shone with unnatural brightness.

Samuel kneaded his son’s shoulder with one hand. “Let’s go home. We’ll decide later.”

The sound of scraped back chairs followed by booted feet shuffling on the boards accompanied them into the cobbled street.

During the short walk to collect their horses, Nathan could not help thinking that Samuel had expected this.

 

 

* * *

 

November 1688, Exeter – Samuel

 

The following morning, Samuel took a protracted farewell of his family before he set off on the three mile ride into Exeter astride his favourite horse, a massive beast more suited to pulling a plough. “I’ll be back before you know it,” he told his wife, Meghan.

He had meant to reassure her, but when she had burst into fresh sobbing, he had been forced to summon their eldest daughter, Susannah, who took her back into the house.

“Send us word if there’s trouble,” Nathan had said, out of earshot of the younger children, before waving him off.

Samuel had seen it coming. Other than to insist on public fealty from its leading citizens, how else could the aldermen secure their position against the invader? That Samuel should be elected one of the first was unfortunate, though he suspected Lord Blanden had a hand in that.

He urged his horse over the stone bridge and out onto the Exeter Road, speculating on the most likely source of the man’s malice. Lord Miles Blandon had been Sir Jonathan Woulfe’s friend, or so everyone believed, but had betrayed him to the magistrates when they rode off to join Monmouth. When the Rebellion failed and Loxsbeare was seized by the crown, Blanden rushed to purchase the Woulfe’s estate from Judge Jeffries. For a derisory sum, rumour said.

Then someone ran off Blanden’s sheep and fired his carriage. The Woulfe carriage. It could not be proved, but his lordship always believed Samuel and Tobias were responsible. Blanden still harboured a grudge and had sought his opportunity for revenge ever since. It appeared he had found it.

What should he do? Samuel had assured his family he had the matter under control, but that was pure bravado. He had no idea.

The road topped a small rise and Samuel twisted the reins to halt his horse, the grass crackling with an early frost beneath the animal’s hooves.

The old horse didn’t seem to mind and dipped his head to nibble at the grass verge. Heavy morning silence engulfed him and Samuel inhaled the sharp, cold air tinged with wood smoke, his eyes narrowed to take in the view.

The medieval Rougemont Castle dominated the skyline, with the pale stone Norman cathedral sitting squat and solid in the middle distance. Numerous church spires reached into a watery blue sky, the whole enclosed by the ancient city walls with its secured entrances glowing red beneath the winter sun.

Tree branches rustled overhead, swayed by a sudden brisk wind that held the tang of salt. Samuel loved this place. He would always love it, even if what he saw of it after today was only the inside of the goal at St Pancras. The magistrates might well make an example of him if he refused to swear fealty to King James.

And he would refuse. He must.

He leaned down to pat the animal’s neck, his saddle creaking beneath him. “May as well get it over with, eh boy?”

The horse whickered, pawing the ground and spewing white wisps into the air through flared nostrils.

Samuel called at The Ship first, not so much for a drink to boost his courage, but to entrust his mount into his friend’s care. “Look after the old boy for me, Tobias.”

“For a while, perhaps, Master Ffoyle.” Tobias took the reins from him with a curt nod. “But I’ll have you know, I don’t run a livery stable.”

Their eyes met and held in a look of mutual understanding as a knot of sadness welled in Samuel’s throat. He gripped Tobias’ shoulder briefly before he turned and strode down St Martins Lane into the High Street. He almost looked back, but at the last second, resisted.

Two guards stood to attention beneath the portico of the Guildhall, stiffening at Samuel’s approach. One knocked on the studded door with his staff, the thud echoing hollow and ominous.

The sound of his doom perhaps?

The small wicket gate cut into the thick oak swung inward, and swallowing, Samuel ducked his head and stepped through. His heart hammered in his chest, his gaze swept the rows of wooden seats lined up on either side of the hall like church pews.

The judge’s chair, with its ornamental carvings, stood at the far end. Arched stained glass windows set high in the walls threw beams of light into the lofty hall, bathing the tiled floor with elongated shapes in transparent, jewel colours.

Samuel halted, puzzled. The chamber stood empty.

“Where are the Magistrates?” he asked the guard who had followed him in.

The man shrugged. “Bugger’d if I know, sir.’ Samuel glared at him and the man ducked his head. ‘Beggin’ your pardon, sir. I was told to man me place as usual, but no one turned up s’morning.” The guard scratched his nose and sniffed. “City aldermen all left last night, and from what I hear, Prince William's expected any time now.”

 

 

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