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Authors: Ann Swinfen

Tags: #Mystery; Thriller & Suspense, #Mystery, #Historical, #Thrillers & Suspense, #Thrillers

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BOOK: Bartholomew Fair
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‘And,’ Bess interposed, ‘what is best of all, our William is to marry Liza, and they will manage the shoe-making business. She has assisted her father for years, and William has taken to the craft as if he had been born to it.’

‘That is good news indeed,’ I said.

Good news in many ways, I thought. The Winterlys had taken William in when he was invalided out of the army, but I had seen their cramped home above the leather shop. When William married, he and his wife would have the living quarters next door, and the increase in business would help them all.

‘Indeed, it is shoes I have come in search of,’ I said. ‘Will they able to fit me out? My own were ruined and I am wearing borrowed gear.’

Their eyes all went to my feet. It was clear they recognised women’s shoes, but were too discreet to comment.

Young Will insisted on accompanying me to the shop next door, which proclaimed its trade with an enormous cavalryman’s boot painted gold and hung outside for a sign. Jake had explained that Ned Cordiner had already left for Essex, but that Liza was fully skilled enough to make me any shoes or boots I might require. William was still learning the trade, but could manage the easier tasks.

I had not encountered a woman shoe-maker who undertook the entire work herself instead of merely assisting, but Liza Cordiner soon showed herself confident and skilled. She was perhaps a year or two older than William, not beautiful but with a sweet face and neat person. When she turned her eyes to William, they glowed. Here was one woman, it seemed, who cared not a fig that he had lost a leg and would only walk with a crutch for the rest of his life.

‘I need both a pair of house shoes and some light summer boots,’ I explained, as I removed Sara’s borrowed shoes. I had already explained my losses and answered William’s questions about the expedition. Young Will had been shooed back to his work in his parents’ shop.

Liza began to measure my feet with callipers and  a tailor’s tape, while William made notes in a leather-bound record book. As she worked, Liza gave me one or two puzzled glances. I realised that a cobbler must be able to judge a great deal from this close examination of feet and I knew mine were too slender and fine-boned to pass easily for a man’s. A padded doublet and breeches did much to disguise my sex, but there was nothing I could do about the shape of my feet. However, she said nothing, though I wondered whether she might share her suspicions with William when I was gone. I had no fear that William was a tattle-mouth, but the fewer people who knew my secret, the safer it would be for me.

‘Will you have the house shoes made first, master?’ Liza said when she had finished measuring. ‘Or the boots?’

‘The boots,’ I said. I knew that I could continue to wear Sara’s shoes for the moment about the house, but I needed the boots for my visit to Walsingham.

‘If you will come over here,’ Dr Alvarez,’ William said, ‘I can show you the skins we have in stock. Or if you would prefer something else, we can get it for you.’

They had an abundant supply of suitable leather, and I was more interested in speed than in some special skin, so I chose a tough but supple cow-hide the colour of ripe horse-chestnuts.

‘They will be ready for fitting in three days’ time,’ Liza said, making a note in the record book.

I offered to pay something in advance, for Sara had given me money, but they would not take it.

‘No, no,’ William said. ‘Not until you are satisfied with them.’

We discussed their plans for the future before I left. The banns for their marriage had already been called once in their parish church, and it would take place in three weeks’ time.

‘We would be honoured if you would attend, Dr Alvarez,’ William said. ‘And we will have cakes and ale in the Fighting Cockerel afterwards.’

I accepted heartily. It would be a pleasant change from the strained atmosphere in the Lopez household. ‘Just before Bartholomew Fair?’ I said.

‘Aye. We’ll be busy then. Jake always takes a booth. We’re building up stock for the Fair now.’

‘It’s important for all craftsmen, I know. I haven’t visited the Fair these two-three years.’

I had been busy about others affairs, I thought. But perhaps I would take the chance this year, having so much idle time on my hands. Perhaps Anne Lopez and I could get up a party.

When I left the shoe-maker’s shop, I strolled slowly back in the direction of Wood Street. There was nothing to make me hurry, so I took my time, glancing at the goods displayed on the shopmen’s drop-down counters, firmly ignoring the street vendors who plied me with trinkets and, for some reason, with spectacles. The spectacles made me think again of Phelippes. Surely he would be glad of my services again? Three days or a little more before I could go seeking work. This enforced idleness did not suit me.

As I turned along Cheapside, I thought I saw a familiar figure coming toward me. Still some way off, a man was pushing his way impatiently through the pedestrians dawdling along the streets, slow to get out of the way of horsemen or carts. My heart gave a nervous jerk. At this distance I could not be sure, but it looked like Robert Poley. The last I had heard of him, some months ago now, he was carrying despatches for Walsingham to the Low Countries and spent most of his time out of England. It would be my misfortune if he was back in London again now and busy about the Seething Lane office.

I didn’t wait to meet him face to face. Instead I dodged into a narrow alleyway until I was certain he must have passed. When I gained the street again, the man was well past the mouth of the alley. The shape of the back, the style of the walk – it could be Robert Poley, but I wasn’t sure. I made my way back to Wood Street in a sober frame of mind. I knew that Poley held a winning hand as far as I was concerned. By threatening to reveal my disguise, he could force me to fall in with whatever scheme he had in hand. So far he had only coerced me, against my will, into Walsingham’s service. I smiled wryly. There was some irony in the fact that, despite my initial reluctance, I had taken to the work of code-breaking and – although I was reluctant to admit it – I had even enjoyed some of my more dangerous tasks. In retrospect, at any rate, if not at the time. And now I would be going to see Walsingham and Phelippes as my only hope for employment.

However, that did not mean Poley could not use his knowledge to blackmail me in other ways. I hoped I was mistaken. That the man in the crowd had not been Poley. That I had let my imagination deceive me.


After three days I returned to the cobblers at the sign of the golden cavalry boot. Liza fitted my new boots, carefully examining them from every angle and making me walk up and down in them until she was satisfied. They were the most comfortable footwear I had possessed for a long time.

‘They are excellent, Mistress Cordiner,’ I said. ‘You made them entirely yourself?’

She blushed a little. ‘William cut all the pieces. I stitched them and William hammered in the studs on the soles.’

‘You work well together, then.’ I grinned at William, who smiled back. I had never seen him look so happy. It was difficult to remember him as he had once been, in such a state of despair that he had wanted only to die.

‘The boots are ready to take now?’ I said.

‘They need a further polish,’ Liza said. ‘We can do it now, while you wait, or you can come back tomorrow. The shoes will be ready by the end of the week.’

‘I’ll wait,’ I said. I was impatient to feel myself fully clothed and shod.

Within half an hour the boots were ready and Sara’s shoes wrapped in a sheet of brown paper for me to carry away. I stepped out of the shop into a bright day, determined to think nothing of Poley or the possibility that my services might not be needed at Seething Lane. Tomorrow I would take my reports to Walsingham.


Chapter Three

he following morning I rose early. It had been a restless night. What if Walsingham did not need me? My only other hope for employment was as an assistant physician in one of London’s two hospitals. I only knew St Bartholomew’s and the woman living in our house in Duck Lane had said there were no positions there now. She might have been lying, though I thought not. Despite my anger at her indifference to what had happened to my father and to me, she had seemed an honest woman. Because of my services in the past, I knew that the governors of the hospital respected me, but money was always short and they could not authorise employing an extra physician if one was not needed.

The other hospital, St Thomas’s, lay south of the river, outside the City of London itself, in the borough of Southwark. I had been there just once. When the sailors and soldiers from our fleet which defeated the Armada were struck down by typhoid and the bloody flux, my father and I had cared for several ships’ crews docked at Deptford. When the worst of the epidemic was over, we had transferred the last few convalescent patients to St Thomas’s, the nearer hospital, before we returned to our own work at St Bartholomew’s. I had seen very little of the southern hospital, though I knew they often took on desperate cases. There might be a vacancy there. However, the summer this year had been remarkably free of the plague and other diseases of the warmer weather, so it was likely they too had no need of extra physicians. No doubt, like St Bartholomew’s, they never had money enough.

If I was not needed in Walsingham’s service, I would approach St Thomas’s. Even if Sir Francis could offer me some code-breaking work I might do so, for I did not want my medical proficiency to grow rusty. Since childhood I had always admired and loved my father’s medical skills, honed by his studies of Arab medicine. As a girl in Portugal, I could never have hoped to become a physician. The great advantage of my boy’s disguise had meant that from the age of fourteen I had become my father’s assistant, learning his profession both in practice at his side and through the studies his set me at home. I would not, could not, sacrifice all that and what it meant to me.

I decided to take Rikki with me to Seething Lane, but not into Sir Francis’s office. After I had rescued the dog in the Low Countries – or more truthfully, after he had rescued me – I had brought him home and in time taken him with me on my days in Phelippes’s office. He was used to lying quietly in a corner while we worked, and I certainly felt safer on the nights when I walked home in the dark, having his large protective presence by my side. More than once he had bared his teeth and seen off a potential cutpurse or attacker.

Rikki would not be welcome around the house by Ruy on this of all days. While I was out collecting my boots the previous day, Ruy had heard that he had lost his sumach and aniseed monopoly and the Privy Council looked coldly on all his excuses and appeals. The Queen, however, who had always valued him and treated his family kindly, had sent word that she would not dismiss him. It was his nature always to rage at any insult or setback, while an instance of good fortune was regarded as merely his due. Today he was stamping about the house, swearing at the servants and snapping at Sara when she pointed out the blessing of the Queen’s continued patronage. All he could think about was his treatment by the Privy Council.

Soon he would need to concentrate solely on his medical practice once more, particularly after the loss of income from the monopoly, and leave off meddling in affairs of state. He would again be scurrying between the courts at Greenwich, Hampton Court, and Whitehall, or attending the Queen on her progresses, then riding out to Eton to treat Dom Antonio, who was held there little better than a prisoner (for he had tried to escape to the Continent), and riding back again to treat my Lord Essex at Essex House. In the meantime, however, all he could think of was the insult and drop in income through losing his monopoly. It was better for both Rikki and me to be out of the house.

So I would take Rikki with me once again to Seething Lane. However, I thought I would make a better case if I went alone to see Sir Francis. I could leave the dog with the stable lad Harry, who was fond of him. It would also give me the chance to look in on Hector, the ugly piebald I often rode on Walsingham’s business. It seemed a long time since I had last had the chance to do so.

I donned my new clothes, strapped on my sword, and begged a couple of small apples from the cook to give to Hector. While I had been waiting for my boots to be polished by Liza Cordiner, I had gone next door and bought a new collar and lead for Rikki from Bess Winterly. His old ones had vanished along with all my other possessions. I was running up more debts to Sara, who brushed aside my promises to repay her, but I was keeping careful note of everything I spent. I would never let myself fall into debt as my father had done, but would repay her every penny and groat. For a moment I thought longingly of replacing my father’s lost medical books, but it would be long before I possessed the chinks to do that, even if I could find any copies amongst the booksellers in Paul’s Churchyard.

The evening before I had sent a note round to Seething Lane, asking if Sir Francis could see me, and a servant had brought back a reply before I went to bed, saying that he would be free after he had returned from his morning visit to the Queen, at ten of the clock. Sir Francis was Her Majesty’s Principal Secretary, which meant he carried a great burden of duties in addition to organising and directing his secret service of agents and code-breakers. When I had last seen him, he had looked even more ill than usual. It was never spoken of, and I could not be sure what ailed him, but I knew he was often in pain. I suspect it might be some disease of the kidneys or liver. Dr Nuñez was his physician and would, of course, maintain the strictest silence on the condition of his distinguished patient.

As I walked through the hot and busy streets, where everyone seemed to be going about their daily occupations as usual, I thought how deceptive was this appearance of calm. The three greatest figures in the realm, on whom rested the peace and security of England, were all of them growing old or ill. The Queen seemed indomitable, but she could not live for ever. She had no child and would not speak of appointing an heir, though Lord Stanley’s mother might be regarded as the nearest thing to one, by the provisions of King Henry’s will. Lord Burghley, on whom the Queen had depended since she was no more than a girl, was becoming old and frail. Sir Francis had constant bouts of illness, which the weight of his responsibilities must frequently aggravate.

And always Spanish King Philip circled like a waiting shark, preparing to make another attack. A year had passed since his great invading fleet had swept up the Channel, and although our recent expedition had done a little damage to his remaining navy, he had almost limitless resources drawn from the gold and silver mines of the New World. It would not take him long to rebuild and re-equip his ships. What then? The state of England was like a three-legged stool, held steady by those three mighty figures. If one failed, would the whole country collapse into impotence and ruin?

As usual when I walked across London, I ignored most of the street vendors, but when a pamphlet seller cried, ‘My Lord Essex’s tale of heroism! Read all about My Lord’s adventures against the stinking Spanish! Only a farthing!’

He waved a crudely printed pamphlet in my face. On my journey back from Plymouth I had heard that Essex was putting about stories of his fictitious heroic exploits during the Portuguese expedition. It might be wise to see what this latest version said, before I saw Walsingham and presented my reports. Though I begrudged the farthing.

Walking on towards Tower Ward, I quickly read the pamphlet, growing more annoyed with every sentence.

Something I found inexplicable, as one who had been in Essex’s company for most of the Portuguese venture, was the heroic light in which he was now viewed by the Court and populace alike. He had taken advantage of his early return, before the rest of us, to spread about his story of the expedition, in which his achievements and gallant behaviour outshone the bumbling mistakes of everyone else. Within days of his return, his friends and followers were publishing these encomiums in verse and prose, detailing the mythic (and truly imaginary) deeds of this great man. He had much to gain from such a portrait, as did those who hung about him like leeches. These same eulogies were repeated, in even more extravagant terms, in the present pamphlet. When I had read it, I tore it up in disgust and threw it in the gutter. Yet who would have listened to me? Somehow, he had the skill to persuade people that what was, was not, and that what was not, was.

I could only hope that Walsingham, who well knew both me and the Earl, would balance my report against these fly-blown attempts to ennoble the absurd follies of this arrogant and often dangerous nobleman.

On reaching Seething Lane, I entered as usual through the stableyard, from which I could reach both Walsingham’s and Phelippes’s offices by the backstairs. The stable lad Harry was crossing the yard, carrying a bucket of feed for the horses. He set it down with a clatter and seized my hand, pumping it up and down enthusiastically. My position here at Walsingham’s house was always ambiguous. I might be a gentleman, entitled to work on almost equal terms with Thomas Phelippes, but the grooms and stable lads saw me as one of themselves, knowing my affection for the ugly Hector.

‘So you survived the mad attempt to put that Portingall fellow on the throne,’ he said. ‘I’m that glad to see you! I never thought it would succeed, even with Drake leading it.’

I did not try to disillusion him with my harsher opinions of Drake. The piratical captain was a hero amongst the young lads of London, who dreamed of one day sailing the seas with him in search of booty from the Spanish treasure ships. It amused me that he spoke of ‘Portingalls’ as an alien species. Not long ago I would have been labelled as one of them, but it seemed I had earned my right to be regarded as an Englishman, at least here in the stableyard, and that was an opinion worth valuing.

‘And here’s Rikki,’ he said, squatting down and fondling the dog’s ears. ‘How are you, old fellow? Has your master been starving you? You’ve lost weight.’

He gave me an accusing look.

‘You should have seen him when I first returned,’ I said defensively. ‘My father died and Rikki was turned out on to the street. He was but skin and bone when I found him. He’s recovering now.’

Harry stood up, his face grave. ‘I’m sorry to hear that, Master Alvarez. Your father was a fine physician. I know some who have been treated by him at Barts, and all have praised him.’ He reached out and tentatively touched my arm. I felt my eyes begin to prick. I had not expected this show of sympathy.

‘I thank you, Harry. Now, I have a meeting with Sir Francis shortly. May I leave Rikki with you? And I’ve just time to see Hector. Is he well?’

‘Well enough. Fretting at being so long kept in the stable. Will you be taking him out, do you think?’

‘That I cannot say. Probably not. I have come to report on the expedition, but I do not know if Sir Francis has any work for me.’

Rikki went off quite happily with Harry as he carried the oats round the stalls and I let myself into Hector’s loose box. He whickered a greeting and nuzzled into my shoulder. I put my arm round his neck as I palmed the apples for him. As always when I was with Hector I felt an intense longing to own him. He was just one of Walsingham’s horses, but he felt as though he was mine. It was sheer folly. Even if I had the riches to buy him, even if Walsingham would sell him, how could I pay for his livery? He had been bred on Walsingham’s country estate at Barn Elms and for all I knew, Sir Francis cared for him as much as I did. He was the cleverest horse I had ever known and the fleetest of foot, despite his ugly coat, which drew the eye away from his beautiful proportions and the fine modelling of his head. He was part Arab and had all the qualities of the breed. He was favourite amongst the stable staff here and at Barn Elms, so I probably had plenty of rivals in wanting to own him. I gave him a final rub between the ears and let myself out of the loose box. It was time to see Sir Francis.

I made my way up the stairs and along the corridor with its familiar gloomy family portraits. In answer to my knock, Sir Francis called me in and greeted me warmly, shaking my hand and bowing. He drew up two chairs beside the empty fireplace and motioned me to one of them.

‘You’ve been visiting Hector?’ he asked.

I was startled at this indication of clairvoyance, then realised that the front of my doublet was covered with grey and white hairs. Hector must be shedding in the hot weather. Embarrassed, I brushed myself down.

‘Aye. I always bring him an apple or two whenever I come. He’s served me well in the past. Got me out of one or two scrapes as well, thanks to his speed.’

‘I remember.’ He smiled, and I realised he was not chiding me.

I drew the two reports out of my satchel and handed them to him.

‘As I promised, I have written an account of the Portuguese expedition for you, Sir Francis. One is a general account of every stage of the venture, from the time we arrived at Plymouth in the spring until we returned there last month. I have tried to set out everything as accurately as I could, avoiding nothing. It does not make pretty reading.’ I paused. I might as well prepare him, I thought. ‘Matters were not well managed,’ I said bluntly. ‘The other is a brief summary of the two particular missions you set me, one successful, one not.’

‘In that,’ he said grimly, ‘you proved more successful than the expedition itself.’

BOOK: Bartholomew Fair
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