Authors: Sheila Bishop
Also by the author:*
THE DURABLE FIRE HOUSE WITH TWO FACES
♦Available in ACE STAR Editions
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New York, N. Y. 10036
Copyright, 1969, by Sheila Bishop All Rights Reserved
An ACE STAR Book by arrangement with the author
Printed in the U.S.A.
There were ten houses altogether, in an unbroken line. Four stories high, peaked and gabled, they dominated Cheap-side. At ground level their shops opened directly on to the street; above the shops, stretching along the entire facade, were the arms of the Goldsmiths' Company supported by a procession of figures riding monstrous beasts, all cast in lead and covered with gold leaf. The houses were nearly a hundred years old, but the gold images were kept in good repair, and they had a startling magnificence on a bright, uncomfortably cold morning in January, 1589, as they towered over the sleepily stirring market and the muffled group of people with pails and jugs who were trying to break the ice on the water-conduit.
Joel Downes, hurrying into Cheapside from Gutter Lane, saw the familiar skyline without any feeling of elation. He had a room in Bachelors' Alley, a narrow slit of a back street where young, unmarried journeymen of the Goldsmiths' Company were entitled to a cheap lodging. The bachelors had been celebrating something the night before; he couldn't remember precisely what, only that he had a thick head and he was going to be late at the shop. He could see that all the houses in the Row had their doors open and their shutters thrown back, ready for another day's trade.
All the houses except one. The third door along from the Friday Street end was still firmly closed, and the shutters were fastened across the windows, looking, thought Joel with a horrid aptness, like pennies on a dead man's eyes. He came to a halt, staring at the house where he had spent all his working life.
Another half-awake journeyman bumped into him from behind.
"If you've nothing to do but stand there like an ox in a pond…"
"Look, Simon. The shutters are drawn on Tabor's windows. The old man's gone at last."
"Your master? He must have died in the night. Did you know he was so near the end?"
"He's been sinking these last three days. Even so," said Joel, "I was afraid he meant to live for ever."
"Better guard your tongue. Once he's dead, you are supposed to forget his shortcomings and show a proper respect."
Simon had tweaked off his cap. After a moment's reflection Joel did the same. Then he crossed the road and rapped on the closed door.
"Who's there?" He recognized the voice.
"Let me in, Father."
Zachary Dowries dragged back the bolts and opened the door just wide enough to let his son pass through.
"Three o'clock this morning," he said, answering the question Joel had not yet asked. "He never came out of his slumber, my poor old friend. I have to stay near the door, for the neighbors keep coming to enquire; the Astons and the Partridges have been already, and I dare say the Lord Mayor himself will send, as soon as he hears the news."
"Well, he can hardly avoid hearing it much longer."
Sir Richard Martin, the reigning Lord Mayor of London, was a fellow goldsmith and another neighbor, he lived three houses further along the Row.
Zachary Dowries clicked his tongue at his son's levity. He was a thin, grey, worried man, not at all like Joel, who was large and blunt-featured and cocksure, with a keen eye to the main chance. Though they did not appear to have much in common, Joel was a surprisingly good son. His affection for his father was almost protective; he considered that Zachary had taken too many hard knocks from life, not least from his dear old friend who was lying dead upstairs, and who in life had worked him to the bone, despised, coerced and possibly swindled him. Had John Tabor kept his promise in the end? That remained to be seen.
As they stood in the darkened shop, a girl carrying a silver porringer came through from the kitchen quarters at the back: Philadelphia Whitethorn, Mrs. Tabor's waiting-woman.
"I'm going upstairs, Mr. Dowries. Is there anything I can do for you?"
"Not at present, I thank you. I hope you'll find your mistress more comfortable in her mind."
"Her sister is still with her," said Philadelphia obliquely.
Zachary shuffled his feet. "It was right that she should be here. I was obliged to let Edmund fetch his mother; what else could I do?"
"You had no choice. But I think Mrs. Tabor might be thankful if I disturbed her with this sustaining posset."
"What an enterprising creature you are, Del," exclaimed Joel.
The girl smiled faintly. She was tall but very light on her feet with a well-shaped body: widely sprung breasts and a small elegant waist. Her hair was smooth under a little cap of embroidered linen. Her eyes, in this half-light, seemed unusually dark and lustrous.
She passed through the shop, and Joel held aside a curtain for her, so that she could go upstairs into the private part of the house.
The parlor and great chamber were on the first floor, Philadelphia went on up the second flight. There was a staircase window where the curtains had been parted to let in some light. As she came into the shaft of brightness, she raised her hand in a slight brushing movement, as though to ward off the sun. She acted quite unconsciously; there was no one there to see what that futile gesture was trying unsuccessfully to hide; the puckered seam which ran down from the left temple to the bridge of her nose. The forehead that should have been as clear as alabaster was indelibly pitted with the scars of smallpox.
On the second landing Philadelphia paused. Inside the principal bed-chamber John Tabor's body was laid out in his shroud, as she had seen it an hour ago, the muscles of the face slackened and the flesh dropping away, so that the sharp spar of the profile stood out in relief like the prow of a ship. Some men appeared to change character after death; not John Tabor. He had been a tyrant while he lived, and his corpse was stiffening into the mould he had made for himself. She had spent eight months in his house and she had not liked him; no amount of pious meditation was going to alter that.
There was another door, and beyond it she could hear the murmur of women's voices. She hesitated, with the porringer cooling rapidly in her hands. It seemed a fearful impertinence, to break in on the newly-made widow's private conversation with her sister, yet Philadelphia could not help feeling that this was what Mrs. Tabor would probably want her to do.
Alice Tabor and Hannah Beck were the surviving children and co-heiresses of a former Master of the Goldsmiths' Company, Sir Peter Middleton. Alice had married into the same livery, so to speak; Hannah, who was several years younger, had married a mercer, Arthur Beck, with his fine house on London Bridge, had been an excellent match. The Tabors were undoubtedly richer than the Becks, but the Becks were rich enough not to suffer by comparison, and in every other way Hannah had done better than her sister. Alice had been saddled with a most difficult husband; Hannah's husband was meek and devoted and fully aware of his luck in having such an excellent wife. The Tabors' only child, a girl, had died unmarried at the age of eighteen; this must have been a bitter disappointment, and even now, fifteen years later, Philadelphia had never heard either of them speak of her. The Becks, on the other hand, had four sons and four daughters, all of them so healthy, handsome, prudent, diligent and obedient that it was hardly possible to believe they were mortal flesh and blood.
One of the voices behind the door was raised with a sudden squawk of indignation. Philadelphia took a firm grip on the porringer and marched in without knocking.
"… Never heard of such an outrageous scheme! My poor Alice, you are overwhelmed by your bereavement. You must forget all these troublesome matters and leave well alone. You'll do no good by trying to dig up the past."
Mrs. Beck was a massive woman with hair the color of brass, much taller than her woolly, timid sister. The widow wore an old black dress which would tide her over until her brother-in-law had produced all the necessary cloth and velvet for her mourning. She looked flustered, and her weak, rather pleasant face wore an expression of tremulous obstinacy. Thirty-five years of submission to John Tabor had left her without much courage in an argument.
Mrs. Beck spoke irritably to Philadelphia.
"We don't require you here at present, my good girl. Your mistress will send for you when you are needed."
"But I am very glad to see Philadelphia," said Mrs. Tabor. "I want to tell her of my plan. What do you think I am going to do, my dear? I am going to send for my grand-daughter and bring her here to live with me."
Philadelphia gazed at her in astonishment. She did not know that Mrs. Tabor had a grand-daughter.
"It was news to me," protested Philadelphia to Joel Downes, late that afternoon, when they were toasting their feet in front of the furnace in the workshop. The shop itself was still shut, of course, though a certain activity of lights and voices was stealing through a crack in the door. Edmund Beck had the two apprentices in there—Will Morris and Joel's younger brother Sam—they were polishing the plate, which soon tarnished in the foggy London air and needed constant attention. It was like Edmund to think of doing this at such a time; he was Mrs. Beck's youngest son and exceedingly conscientious. Joel, a far more accomplished craftsman, saw no point in making work for himself, and was perfectly at ease gossiping with Philadelphia.
"Did you know there was a grandchild?" she asked him. "Yes, but I always supposed it had perished in infancy."
"But who were the parents? Had Mr. and Mrs. Tabor any other family except that girl—what was her name? Frances?"
"No. Frances was the mother; she died in child-bed."
"Oh. But I thought—do you mean that her daughter was illegitimate?"
"Have you never heard of such a thing before?" asked Joel, amused by her flush of annoyance at being made to sound a simpleton. How those pock-marks stood out when the blood came up under the skin. It was a pity she was so badly blemished, for there were other things about her that were distinctly enticing. He wondered if her body was scarred as well, and whether he would ever get a chance to find out.
Philadelphia had no idea what was going on in his mind, she was too busy being surprised that the Tabors had been vulnerable to this particular misfortune. The climate of affection between them had always seemed to her cold, colorless and sterile, while their wealth appeared to protect them from any dangerous intrusion of the world outside. Had their daughter escaped deliberately or come to grief by accident?
"I wonder what happened," she said. "Do you know who was the father?"
"Some sprig of the nobility who came here to borrow money and ended by borrowing Frances as well. Unluckily he was married. She didn't care; she ran off with him and was never seen again. This is hearsay," added Joel, "for it was all over before we came here, and anyway I wouldn't have been more than seven years old at the time."
He was now twenty-three.
Edmund Beck came in from the shop. A well-meaning young man, pink-cheeked and ingenuous, he had become a goldsmith to please his mother. His elder brothers were with their father in the Mercers' Company, and the strong-minded Hannah had been determined that one of her children should carry on the traditions of her own family, so Edmund had been the unprotesting sacrifice, though he was not very deft with his hands and would rather have stayed on at school and gone to the university.
"Well, you've been working mighty hard," Joel greeted him. "I'd like to know whose plate it is you've been polishing. Have you any inkling how things are left?"
"My dear fellow, I wasn't the old man's attorney."
"I thought you might have been given a hint. It's of great moment to my father and me to know what he's done about the leasehold of this house, and the stock. Considering all things, he had a moral obligation to leave us a share—and it's not as though he had a natural heir to dispute our claim."
"No living descendant; it's true, but indirectly…"
"Ah, that's where you Becks come in! Perhaps he's willed his entire property to you, Edmund. His wife's nephew."
Edmund looked slightly alarmed, and said quickly, "It's more likely he's willed it to Laurence."
"Laurence! Good heavens, I'll believe that when oranges grow on beanstalks."
Philadelphia was following this with interest. Laurence Tabor was the only son of the dead man's only brother. He had served his seven years' apprenticeship and then worked for his uncle until he ruined his prospects by quarrelling with the old man; he had either walked out or been thrown out, she was not sure which or why. This had happened six years ago, and she had been with the Tabors a mere eight months.
"Isn't it possible that he forgave Laurence?" she asked. "The sole inheritor of his name and blood? Why did they quarrel?"
"Laurence wanted to be a limner," said Edmund. "To paint those little miniature portraits that are worn in lockets and brooches."
"What was wrong in that? I thought limning was one of the branches of your craft. Mr. Hilliard is a goldsmith."
"You should have tried telling my uncle that—if you wanted your ears boxed. As far as he was concerned, a goldsmith was a smith working in precious metals and nothing more."
"Isn't that enough?" said Joel. "We're smiths first and foremost, that's the pride of our calling, and any other fanciful arts we learn are thrown in as a makeweight. They weren't intended to save idlers like Laurence from doing their proper stint at the forge. He only pretended he wanted to paint because he didn't like getting hot and dirty. He's a smooth Italianate fellow, with hands as white as a woman's, always hoping to be taken for a gentleman; he even affected a lisp…"
"No, that's too bad," said Edmund, laughing. "You have got your knife into poor Laurence. When did you ever hear him lisp?"