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Authors: Katherine Sturtevant

At the Sign of the Star

BOOK: At the Sign of the Star


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For my mother, Lee Sturtevant, who always provided me with the very best books—and with anything else I wanted to read


Almanac for the Year of Christ 1677


I was with Hester when we saw the comet in the night sky over London, saw it before anyone spoke of it or wondered what it meant. It was just past midnight on an April evening, a week or more past Easter. My father had come home late from being in company, and I was anxious to hear if the playwright John Dryden had been there, or perhaps Aphra Behn, London's female playwright. Hester and I waited up in the parlor, as we often did, thinking to have a mug of ale with him while he shared his gossip. But he told me Dryden wasn't there, and when I asked who was, he only smiled at me and winked, and said it was none of my affair.

Then he went into the small parlor to read manuscripts by candlelight, and Hester and I went to our room. But before we undid our stays we both decided we were not sleepy, and agreed that the spring air felt fresh and fine. So it was that we ended up sitting out of doors on the step, looking into the lane that ran behind the house. We sat with the kitchen door held open so that we might dash within if a cutthroat should come suddenly upon us. This was my own precaution. Hester was careless of such matters, and said I ought to have been named Prudence instead of Margaret. But I am no Puritan to bear such a name as that, and am satisfied to be called instead after saints and noblewomen. Margaret is my name, and I am called Meg.

“My father is not himself,” I said to Hester as we sat peering into the darkness. “What bothers him, do you think?”

“Why, nothing bothers him. Think how cheerful he was over the counter this morning, when Mrs. Beckwith and her daughter came in.”

“That means nothing. 'Tis part of his job, to laugh with those who buy his books.”

“He has been in fine humor,” Hester observed.

“Too fine. He is almost foolish. He is trying to make up his mind about something, and seeks to hide from me while he does it.”

“About whether to publish Mr. Coles's Latin and English dictionary, that is all.”

“Nay, it is something bigger.”

“You make too much of little things. Are your feelings hurt, that he chose not to answer a girl's prying questions when bedtime was long past?”

She meant to affront me, for the fun of it, so I stayed sulky and silent to please her. We both gazed at the night. It was full dark, for the moon had set, or had not yet risen, and we had no lantern in our street. I counted three candles in the windows across the street from us. I heard the rattle of a laundry tub from the house of Mr. Grove, who lived next door, for the laundress was beginning her night work. Soon after I heard the bell of the watchman as he made his rounds. There was the smell of rosemary nearby—Cook grew it under the window.

“With whom did he sup?” I wondered aloud after a little, but Hester spoke at the same moment.

“Why, look at that, Meg,” she said, and pointed upward with her long arm.

I gazed up so mightily it made my eyes sting, and there saw a star with a fiery wake, as though a chariot had flown through the dark heavens and parted them behind. “'Tis a comet,” I said.

“Surely not.”

“I'm certain of it. Sir Henry has described them to me, he saw one five years ago.”

“God protect us,” Hester said in a grave voice. “What can it foretell for us?”

I shook my head doubtfully.

“Perhaps another great fire will consume the City,” she said.

“Perhaps the Plague will return,” I offered.

“Or the Dutch will sail up the Thames once more and will murder us in our beds.”

“Or the drought will come and the crops will fail.”

“Or the King may die without an heir.”

It was my turn to think of a calamity, but I could think of none. Instead I said, “Sir Henry says that we see the same stars as folk in foreign lands. So they are seeing this selfsame comet. Perhaps misfortune is meant for some other country. Perhaps it is the French who will suffer. Or the Spanish. Perhaps it is the people in the colonies, across the sea.”

“I never heard such nonsense,” Hester said. “The people in the colonies can worry about their own misfortunes; we must worry about ours. A comet is a sign from God that terrible things will befall us all unless we mend our ways. And what is less likely than London Town mending her ways?”

Hester was from the countryside in Surrey and had no very great opinion of London. She was both cousin and maidservant, and in those months lived with my father and me at the sign of the Star, where we sold the books my father published, and other books as well. She was then sixteen, four years older than I, and was to marry Thomas Whitcombe, from her village, someday.

I stared up at the comet. I knew it was moving, though it seemed still as stone. I wondered what it really meant, for London, and for me. “London isn't so very bad,” I said, not because I thought so but to make Hester fire up. “What ways ought she to mend?”

“Ha!” was all Hester said.

“I'm sure
pious enough.”

“You! Is that why you sit reading almanacs and plays, instead of sermons and psalmbooks as you ought?”

This was an old argument—old and comfortable as slippers. It was I who taught Hester to read in the first place, but she made no more use of it than to peer into Bibles and recipe books. She didn't mind, though, when I sat on a stool in the kitchen and read stories to her of Robin Hood or Long Meg, while she rolled out the dough for tarts.

“I don't mind a sermon, if it's nicely argued,” I answered Hester.

“I'm sure God's grateful to you for that!”

“But I can't think why Father has taken to going to St. Botolph's of late. Reverend Little is so dull!”

“I'm sure your father has his reasons.”

“The choir's fine. Do you think it's the hymns he likes?”

“Ask him, if you want so much to know.”

“I did, but he just laughed and said that I am curious as a cat. He's not himself, Hester.”

“This again,” she answered.

We sat a few minutes more, and heard the watch call the hour.

“We'll go in now, or you'll get the chill,” Hester said. Every once in a while she thinks she's my mother instead of my servant. But she's nothing like my mother was, nothing.


I was eight when my mother died. She died in childbirth, of course. Of course. Almost every year her big belly grew yet bigger, and each time she bore me a wee brother or sister. First was Christopher—he died three weeks after his birthday; I was too young to remember him. Then Frances, who died at four months. I remember her, I think. That is, I remember a baby in the house for a few days, before she was sent to the country to nurse. I must have been three, then.

Next came Louis. Louis I remember well. He was born when my father's fortunes were low, and there was no money for a wet nurse, so he lived with us and sucked his milk from my mother's breasts. I changed his fouled clouts when he was but a babe, and spooned pap into his mouth while he stood in his standing stool, and it was I who taught him to drink his ale from a cup after he was weaned. Louis grew to be three years old, and was such a brother as no girl ever had. He loved to hang on my apron and listen to my stories. He begged me to teach him to read, though he was such a little thing, and could not yet remember his
and his
My mother would laugh to see us together.

When I was seven I caught a fever, and Louis caught it, too, and my father and mother as well. The doctor purged us and bled us and gave us foul remedies to drink, and at last we did recover, except Louis.

The house was a quiet one after he died, and when my mother conceived once more I was glad of it, hoping to hear a brother's laughter soon again. But my last sister died in the bearing, yet unnamed, and my mother died with her.

One afternoon in the months of mourning that followed my mother's death, my father came into the kitchen as I sat there chopping turnips with Cook.

“Who will teach her?” he said, as though speaking to himself.

“I already know how to read, Papa,” I answered him.

“That is the littlest thing you must know. What of cookery and healing and minding the household? What of needlework and French? You must be sent away to school.”

I laid my knife to one side. “Will they teach me Latin and Greek?” I asked.

“Nay, Meg. Those studies are for boys.”

“Will they teach me the stationers' trade, so that I may help you and Robert in the shop?” Robert was my father's chief apprentice.

He smiled. “No, Meg. But they will teach you piety and gentleness.”

“I do not want to go to school.”

“It is not for you to choose, Margaret. You cannot spend your days sitting in the kitchen, chopping turnips like a serving girl.”

That was when Cook spoke. She sat opposite me at the table, pulling and punching at the dough that would cover our sparrow pie at supper. Her hands were covered with flour, and flour scattered across the thick slices of turnip I had cut with such care. “It's only that she might not be idle, sir. She hasn't the spirit to be much alone since her mother died, poor thing,” Cook said, and shook her head at me. Her name was Mary, I think. She was a thin, worrying woman who made wonderful stews. The cook we have now does not make such savory stews.

“Her loss is less than mine,” my father answered her.

It made me angry, because he always had more of her when she lived, and now he claimed more of her when she was dead as well. I looked up at him, and he looked straight back at me. I knew that he saw the anger in my eyes.

“You had your mother for eight years,” he said. “Many children do not have their mothers as long.”

I have thought often about those words. They have made me long to remember every moment of those eight years. But of my infancy and young years I remember nothing, and later I was often with Louis instead of my mother. Some things I do remember. I remember that my mother was kind—kind to servants, kind to beggars. I remember that she was clever. She read as often as my father, and argued with him about what ought to be printed. It was she who taught me to read. I remember that she was stout, and loved the color blue. That her feet ached often, which sometimes made her tongue sharp with me and with Louis. But she loved my father, and when arguing with him she would leave off in the middle of an angry sentence and shake her head, and thank God for him instead.

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