He came to see me before he sailed for Italy.
It was toward the end of Lent, not many weeks past my sixteenth birthday. I was not expecting to see him, and did not understand, at first, why he had come. I thought he meant to buy a book, and then, when I saw him draw a folded note from the pocket of his bright green waistcoat, I supposed he was there to deliver a message from his sister, Anne, who was my dear friend. But he had come for another reason.
Later, when we heard what befell him, I remembered certain things: the colors of his clothes, the way the spring air had chilled his nose to brightness, how the sea-coal glowed in the grate, and the scents of turpentine and lavender wafting up from my apron. I remembered, too, the softness of his fingers as he put his shillings upon my palm, and the way he let his hand linger on mine.
There I stood, mouth agape, and knew not what to say.
But before that came the argument with my father. We were only four at breakfast, and that counted Deb, the chambermaid, who always sat with us at table. My father's apprentice had already opened the bookshop, and the little ones ate with Bridget, the nurse. I was reading a story which Mademoiselle de Scudéry had written, and had brought it with me to the dining room. There I sneaked glances at it lying open in my lap while I drank my chocolate and ate a bit of cold sparrow pie. It was a thrilling tale, filled with all manner of perils: storms, shipwrecks, pirates, and many abductions of the heroine, Mandane, by her daring suitors. I had quickly seen that she would always remain true to Cyrus, her beloved, but in spite of that I picked up the book every chance that came, and could hardly wait to learn what I already knew.
At first I paid little heed to what was said as I ate. I seldom did, for our talk at table was often dull. Susannah, who had been my father's wife nearly four years, was kind in her way, but she was greatly more interested than I in how to relieve the pain of a baby who cuts his first milk tooth, and what will best protect a tapestry from moths. Useful knowledge, I allow, but lean subjects for conversation. That day Susannah and Deb rattled on about how greatly new hangings were needed in the parlor. In a little while, Betty, the cook-maid, brought in some bread and butter, and then left again. At last Susannah asked myfather how his business did, and that was when I looked up from my story.
"Well enough," he answered her. "But I have resolved that I will not publish Mr. Phillips's account of Lord Stafford's execution, after all."
"I'm glad to hear it," Susannah said. "The tide is turning in this business of the Catholics, and I know not whom 'tis more dangerous to offend. Silence is surely the wisest course."
My father's jaw tightened with displeasure. "That is not my reason," he said. "There is more to be considered when publishing a book than who will be offended. Mr. Phillips made a fine story of the affair while we were at cards one night; I felt sure that what he wrote would be worth reading. But the thing is all a muddle, and peppered with lies throughout."
I saw that this was the chance I had been dreaming after day and night. "Can it not be written over, by someone with greater art?" I asked. "I know that sometimes you have put the stories of others into your own words."
"I have not the time," he said, but he began to chew more slowly, as though he was thinking it over.
I judged the moment ripe. "Then let me do it, Father! You know I'm forever busy with my quill. I will fix the muddle."
I saw from his glance that he was both surprised and troubled, but all he said was, "Nay, Meg. This is not women's work."
"Please, Father. I am well practiced."
"It is serious business, Daughter. The censor will go over every word."
"If you would but look at some of the things I have written--"
"I don't need to look at them. Give me their titles; that will be enough."
I sat still for a moment, thinking of titles that might surprise and impress him: Discourse on the Duties of Children Toward Their Parents, perhaps, or Reflections on the Sermons of Reverend Little.
"A title, Meg. The things you write have titles, I presume? What is your latest?"
"A Maid's Secret: Relating ..." Then I faltered.
"Relating?" my father prompted.
I took a breath and spoke quickly and loudly. "Relating the Strange and Wonderful Events That Befell a Virgin in Faraway Lands, and How She Escaped Her Evil Captors. And 'tis very good! Much better than some of the stories we sell here in the shop!"
"Margaret! You are immodest," Susannah said.
"However good or bad it may be, it does not fit you for the sort of writing that must be done to publish Mr. Phillips's account," said my father. "Mr. Barlow, however, might try his hand at it." Will Barlow was my father's apprentice.
"Will! You think that Will is more fit for this task than I am? You think that Will is more serious than I am?"
"Hold your tongue, Meg," Susannah said sharply.
"Will stays up until one in the morning playing cards at the tavern night after night!"
My father slammed his spoon against the table. "Stop this racket at once!" he said. "Quarrels are not salutary for a woman in Susannah's condition."
Silence fell upon us all. I looked at Susannah, but she did not look at me. Instead she lifted a corner of her apron and examined it, as though she saw a stain. She was with child, then. Again.
I mumbled my congratulations, and Susannah nodded her thanks. After that I said nothing more, and as soon as I dared, I rose to leave the table. Just then, however, little Toby came running into the dining room.
"Meg!" he called out as he ran to me, and I took him into my arms without thinking. Mine was the warm body he knew the best, for we had shared a bed since his baby sister, Eleanor, was born.
"He is always running from his nurse," my father said with a frown.
Toby clung to me and whispered into my neck, "You must take me to the house of office, Meg. Bridget makes me go alone!"
"The woman is too harsh with him," Susannah said, not for the first time.
"We must not indulge him this way, or he will never learn to obey her," my father replied.
"Bridget hits me, always!" Toby cried out as I set him down. "I hate her! I wish that she may grow a long beard!"
"Be silent, Child!" my father shouted. "Mind your tongue and mend your ways, or I will be the one who does the hitting!" Then he spoke more quietly. "Listen to me, Tobias. You must never, never wish ill upon another, for you know not what harm may come of it."
"Surely it was only a childish fancy," I said.
"You, Margaret, of all people, ought to know what power lies in words. Why are we forbidden to curse, if curses are feeble and impotent? Speech is a weighty business."
"Yes, sir," I said obediently, for I had angered my father enough that morning. But I thought to myself that it would be difficult indeed to know if a hard fate had come through ill wishing or through some other cause.
When my father had gone to the bookshop, I took Toby by the hand and led him to the house of office, which was in the basement. Of course he did not like to go alone, for it was dark and the smell from the vault was foul. I well remembered the first time my own nurse had made me go there by myself, but I could not recall how old I had been. It was true that Toby was somewhat overtimid, and we were all a little anxious about it. But he would not grow more brave from Bridget's cuffs.
I waited while he sat on the close-stool, and when he was done I emptied the pan into the vault, where the night-soil waited to be taken away by the cart. Then I sent Toby back to Bridget, hoping she would think he had gone by himself, after all.
That morning it was my task to oil the furniture in the parlor, which Deb had dusted before breakfast. Susannah made the oil from candle ends and turpentine, and added a bit of lavender to sweeten the air. I began with the hinged table that my father sat at when he studied manuscripts. My mind was free to wander as I worked, and at such times I often thought about the stories I was writing, and how I might better what I had done. But this morning I was still stinging from my father's scorn, and all I could think of as I slid my oily rag across the table was that it was Will Barlow's fault. When Robert Barnes had been chief apprentice my father was glad to have a daughter with a sharp mind and a ready tongue, but when my father signed Will Barlow in Robert's place, things changed. Will was quick and clever, and my father valued him above any apprentice that had ever been bound to him. But being clever in business did not mean that he was skilled with words, and I felt certain that I could do more justice than Will to the account of Lord Stafford's execution.
I finished the table and knelt beside the walnut armchair so that I would not have to stoop to reach the carving on its back. As I followed the scrollwork with my rag, I thought again of what my father had said, that Mr. Phillips told a fine story, but that the manuscript was riddled with lies. What was the difference, finally, between a story and a lie? It was something I had pondered before. Reverend Little preached that we lie from greed and from fear, but hesaid naught of stories. Madame Clarke, who had been my teacher, told me that stories carry truth in their message, though their particulars may be invented.
"Like the story of Dick Whittington, who came to London with nothing but his cat and became Lord Mayor?" I asked her.
"Nay, Meg, that is no moral tale but a sop to hungry apprentices."
"Like the story of the apprentice who fought ten Turks single-handed, and vanquished them all?"
"Like the stories in the Bible," Madame Clarke said, opening that book.
"We are not going to study the Bible yet again?" I asked in dismay.
I was two years in Herefordshire, studying with Madame Clarke. Besides my catechism, she taught me how best to carve a hen and to make a mulberry jelly, though I cannot say I learned her lessons well. I was not an earnest pupil. How could it have been otherwise, with me so many miles from London, from family and friends, from news and gossip and all that made life dear to me? In Herefordshire there was naught to do but study, and take long walks among the fruit trees, and listen to Madame Clarke's brother preach at the village church. When the boredom of it all overcame me it was not unnatural that I should torment my teacher a little, and I know not who was the gladder when I finished my studies at last, and was returned to my father's bookshop, at the sign of the Star in Little Britain Street.
And yet I knew that Madame Clarke had done me no small service, for besides the stories from the Bible she taught me the ones told by the Greeks and the Romans, and sometimes, after my French lesson, we studied Latin, though my father had said it was not good for girls. He did not think the classics a proper subject for those of the female sex, lest it make them unfit for marriage.
The very word marriage made my jaw grow tight. I gave the chair leg one last rub and yanked my rag back. Then I went to the oaken settle that stood against the wall and attacked it as though it were a traitor to the realm. I hated to think of marriage, and for long months I did not let the idea of it enter my brain, but now Susannah's unwelcome news had brought it to mind once more.
I could not help wishing she had not conceived again so soon. With each new baby came more changes. Already we had one apprentice instead of three, for we had not the space to house three, nor the wherewithal to feed them. Now children slept where once servants had, and servants where apprentices had lain, and I did not know where we would put another body, however little it might be.
But all that was nothing compared to the real matter, which was my father's property, and the way my share of it grew smaller with each birth. Before my father remarried I had not worried about my future, for I was his heir then, and likely to have my pick of many eager suitors. But now little Toby would inherit the business, and if I did not marry soon, my father's fortune would be so many times divided that nothing would remain for my dowry.
"You are needed in the shop, madame," Deb said from the doorway. "I'm to finish in here."
I straightened to look at her, much surprised. It was rare that I was asked to help with the business before dinner. Generally my father kept the shop in the morning, and sent Will to do his errands. But I learned nothing from staring at Deb's round face except that she was resentful, for which I did not blame her, for now she must do my work and her own as well.
"Do you know why my father has summoned me?" I asked.
"Mr. Moore has gone out. 'Tis Mr. Barlow who begs your assistance."
Now that was surely a lie. Will Barlow never begged for anything.
The shop was my favorite place in all the world. From a child I had loved everything within: the oaken counter, the gleaming wooden floors, the wainscoted walls. I loved the fireplace surrounded by Delft tiles the color of cream, and the four cane chairs grouped before it, where poets and playwrights, physicians and philosophers sometimes sat and argued. Most of all, of course, I loved the books, from the unbound pages that lay upon the table to the volumes with gilded leather covers that were hid on shelves behindcurtains to keep them from the black soot that sifted through the air.
There were no customers in the shop when I entered, which surprised me. "Why, nothing is stirring," I said, looking around. "What help can you need from me?"
"Your father asked me to look over a manuscript this morning," Will answered. "You will mind the counter while I read."
I felt my anger rising, and wrestled with it as I might with a dog that snatched a joint of beef from the table. Will didn't need my help; he might as easily have read between customers, as I often did. He sought only to give me orders that I must follow whether I would or no. I saw that he was watching me, the way he always did, to see if he had struck a spark with the flint of his command. There was something in him that seemed to take satisfaction in seeing me lose my temper, which was why I fought to keep it. So I did not answer him, but only took my place behind the counter, while he went to a chair by the fire, stuck out his long legs, and began to study Mr. Phillips's story. He was the sort of youth who is careless with his posture and careful of his clothes. The curls of his wig were inky black, and his moustache was brown with a hint of red. But it was his little mouth I most disliked, for it often bore a mocking smile, and I sometimes feared I was the one it mocked.
I had Mademoiselle de Scudéry's romance with me, and at once I settled into reading it, but after a very few minutes he began to pester me.
"This is a sorry piece of work," he said.
I made no answer.
"Strange that he does not write better; over a pint of sack he is a great wit."
"Perhaps he did not drink enough sack while he was writing."
"Too much drink is more likely to harm prose than to help it," he said.
"You know more of drink than I."
After that he didn't speak for a few minutes. I took great satisfaction in having silenced him, and at the same time wished he would speak again, and say more of what he read.
By and by my wish came true. "This is dull as river rock," he said. "No wonder your father wishes me to try my hand at it. I wager I can liven it a little."
I almost told him I would take that wager, but managed to keep a latch upon my tongue.
Then he said, "What book is that?" And without waiting for my reply he continued, "You read more than anyone I ever saw."
"Not more than my father."
"He is a man--and a bookseller."
"I am a bookseller as well."
He did not contradict me, but smiled in a pitying way that made me want to pull the hairs from his moustache. "When I have my own shop I will not sell such things as this," he said. "There is too much risk of offense."
"Not every bookseller has courage enough to speak the truth," I allowed.
But he did not rise to my bait. "A merchant must always be prudent if he expects to stay in business." I made no reply, and he continued, "When I have my own shop I will not sell so many plays and verses."
"Because few buy them, I suppose?"
"To be sure."
"Yet someone must publish them."
"Someone always will. And you, if you had the running of a bookshop, what would you sell there?"
I was so surprised that I stared, and then set my volume upon the counter that I might think. "I would certainly sell plays, and poetry, and heroic romances set in foreign lands. And I would publish essays, and works on scientific subjects, and arguments about whether women should be taught Latin. And many, many sermons and books of devotion, far more than we offer here, for nothing sells as well."
"In other words, you wish to sell everything! You are like your father."
"If my father knew your views I'm sure he would mend his ways."
I did not suppose that I could make him blush, but I thought he would close the conversation, and then I would be free to return to Mandane's adventures. He only laughed, however. "Every apprentice ponders what he would do differently."
"I don't think my father has done so badly. He has publishedJohn Dryden, who is the most famous playwright living. Only last year he published a learned treatise by Mr. Boyle on chemical principles. And of course he reprints many classical works. People will always buy Latin books."
"Yes, Latin works are of great use to learned men."
"Perhaps they will someday be of use to learned women."
"I suppose you believe that women should be taught Latin?"
"I do not think it should be forbidden."
"I do. A woman who has the learning of a man can never be happy submitting to her husband's authority."
"That is what Anne's father said on St. Valentine's Day when I dined with the family, which made me laugh, for Mr. Gosse asks his wife's approval in every small thing! There have been fishwives with not one word of Latin who ruled their husbands, and ladies who could translate Ovid who did their wifely duties humbly. The man who will not admit the truth of that is either a dunce or a hypocrite."
I meant the remark for Will, but he turned it neatly. "And did you call Mr. Gosse a dunce at his own table?"
I paused a moment, to choose my words. "I did not say that, exactly. But he understood my views well enough."
"And did you persuade him to your cause?"
"Of course not. If men were as easy to persuade as that, women would be masters of all ancient tongues by now! But Anne's brother Edward took my part."
Just then a customer entered, or so I thought. I felt a presence at the door--I cannot say I saw him, for I was notlooking that way, but some small sound or moving shadow caught my notice. We turned, both of us, and Edward Gosse, whose name had been that moment on my lips, came into the shop.
For an instant I did not know him. When I had dined at Anne's on the day that was both my sixteenth birthday and St. Valentine's Day, he had worn his own fair hair about his shoulders. After dinner Mr. Gosse played the fiddle and we danced, and I watched his curled locks bounce around his laughing face. But since then he had bought himself a wig, one of the very large ones crowded with false curls that near doubled the size of his head, and he was dressed like a gentleman in a bright green waistcoat and a suit of figured silk. He wore a sword with a silver hilt at his side, and on his head a beaver hat adorned with feathers. He looked almost elegant, and I saw that a girl who did not know him so well as I might even think him handsome.
"Why, Edward, have you dressed up in your father's things?" I asked. "Or was he made a knight, that you are clothed so fine?" Edward colored, and Will threw his gaze upward, and I wished my words unspoken.
"I hope your family are well?" Will asked with great civility.
"Very well, thank you," Edward replied. He began to look around the shop, while one hand played awkwardly with the strings of his neckband.
"Do you look for something particular?" Will inquired.
Edward picked up a pamphlet and read off the title. "'Reasons of the Increase of the Dutch Trade.' This is RogerCoke's work against the Navigation Acts, is it not?" he asked Will.
"Yes, and powerfully written."
"And do you hold his view? Because you must allow that the Navigation Acts have been very good for the Atlantic trade."
I took up my book again and started to read. If either of them had asked my opinion I would have said that there could be no duller subject for a book than the laws governing commerce, but I knew my views were not wanted in a conversation between two someday-merchants. I paid no more heed to them as they spoke, for Cyrus was fighting a duel that required my whole attention. I was so enthralled by my history that Will had to call my name twice before I lifted my head.
"I must get on with my work," he said. "If you will mind the shop, madame, I will do my reading within." And he left me alone with Edward.
I pulled the ledger from beneath the counter so that I could record his purchase, then saw that he had nothing in his hand. Before I could ask him what he had come for, and why he had not left, a man entered the shop looking very hurried. "Is this where William Okeley's narrative is sold?" he asked without a greeting. "The man that was captured by Barbary pirates and enslaved in Algiers?"
"Nay, you will find that book at the sign of the Peacock, in Chancery Lane, near to Fleet Street," I told him with regret, and he turned on his heel and went out again.
"These narratives of captivity are always popular," Isaid to Edward, but he paid no heed, for he was ready at last to tell me why he had come.
"I have brought you a message from Anne," he said, and reached inside his waistcoat to take out a folded paper.
I read it as he watched me. She had written only two lines: Edward has news for you. Be kind to him.
I put the note upon the counter and turned to him, bewildered. I imagined that he had brought evil tidings that oppressed his spirits and would now oppress mine, but I could not fathom what they might be. "Edward, what is it?" I asked.
"I'm sailing for Livorno, in Tuscany," he said. "The city we in England call Leghorn. Mr. Nicholson sends me to be his factor there. I will represent him in all his business dealings."
"Why, that is very pleasing news! What luck for you! I have always longed to travel to the Mediterranean."
"It is a rare opportunity. Livorno is like the center of the world; there are merchants there from all lands."
"And you are so young--you have hardly begun the third year of your apprenticeship. Now I understand your finery: you must reflect well upon your master. How did he come to choose you for such important duties?"
"'Tis my gift with foreign tongues. I can converse in Italian, French, and Spanish."
"Well, that is nothing wonderful. They are all made from Latin, after all."
He paused for only a moment, then spoke in a voice that mocked, though gently. "You are right, of course. It isalmost a cheat to call them three languages instead of one. Still, Mr. Nicholson could find no one abler to send in my stead. I hope to study Arabic while I'm there; it is very useful in that region, but learning it will be a greater trick. You are fluent in all, I suppose?"
Now it was I who blushed. I had meant to display my own learning, not to belittle his. "I have only enough French to entertain myself," I said, gesturing at my book. "I didn't mean--Mr. Nicholson is fortunate to have an apprentice skilled in foreign tongues. I'm very pleased for you, Edward."
"There is--there is a reason I would rather not leave just now."
"Of course: you will miss Anne's wedding!"
He smiled as though I had said something very funny. "Yes, 'tis a great pity."
"And when do you sail?"
"Tomorrow morning. I have already taken leave of my family."
"So soon! How can you be ready?"
"Can you offer me something that will make me more ready?"
I heard his voice alter, but I paid no heed; instead I pondered his words. Books were indeed very necessary on a voyage at sea. "We have an account of travels in the Mediterranean you may like to read on the journey," I said. "Or there is a heroic romance set in Granada during the time of the Moors; it has not been Englished, but we havethe French. I believe you would enjoy it, and 'tis long enough to keep you occupied for many hours."
"I will buy the book about Granada," he said.
I saw that he was smiling again. When he smiled he looked more like Anne's brother, the boy I had known since I was twelve. "You are lucky; it comes already bound," I said, and went to fetch the volumes--there were six of them.
"And perhaps some verse," Edward said. "The Latin writers, as I'm going to Italy. I have lately been wanting to enjoy the love poems of Catullus again--have you read them?"
I turned to look at him, surprised and confused. Why did he imagine it possible that I had read works written in a classical tongue? I wondered if Anne had revealed to him that I had learned Latin without the knowledge or consent of my father. As it happened, I had not read the poems of Catullus, for Madame Clarke kept to Cicero's speeches, and other things of that sort. But this was not something I could say to Edward.
He did not turn his gaze from mine as he took the books I held and placed them on the counter.
"My father does not print Catullus," I said at last.
"Ah. A pity," he replied.
"You must bring Anne a splendid wedding present when you return," I said as I opened the ledger. "Only think of the treasures you can buy for her in the Mediterranean!"
He pulled off his lace-trimmed gloves and laid them on the counter. "It will likely be a year, perhaps two, before I come again to England," he said as he brought out his purse.
"To be sure. I had not thought. Well, you must send her something, then. Venetian lace, perhaps. Anne would love that."
He fished out his shillings, and put them into my open palm. His fingers were warm and soft. Before I could curl my hand around the coins he laid his own palm over mine, trapping the money between our two hands. "And what shall I bring you, Meg?"
It was then that I remembered Anne's words, Be kind to him, and understood them for the first time. My mouth fell open and I was flooded with horror, for it was clear that he offered me a courtship gift. I knew not what to say, and it is a fault of mine that I cannot be still at such moments. Instead, the wrong words fly from my tongue.
"Why, nothing, unless--yes, I so wish we had a narrative to rival Okeley's that we might sell at the sign of the Star. Can you not manage to be captured by pirates, and enslaved in North Africa?"
There was a moment of stillness that was as sharp as a barber's blade. Then he let go my hand and smiled, though his eyes were grave under their flaxen brows. I had never before noticed the hue of them, but now I saw that they were gray, gray with a promise of blue.
"I will do my best," he said, "but the chances are not great."
"It was a jest," I said faintly.
"Our vessel has two hundred tons, two decks, and sixteen guns."
At first I thought he mocked me, but then I saw that he recited these things to calm his own fears, and I was sorrier than ever for my words.
"I should not have--"
"Farewell, Meg. Look after Anne, if you will."
"Of course. Bon voyage, Edward. I'm so glad for you." But he was gone.
Whether by art or instinct, Will knew the moment I was alone, and came to sit again near the fire. I looked at him fearfully, wondering if he had heard my words to Anne's brother.
"Well," he said, sounding both amused and curious, "are you betrothed?"
Suddenly I was angry, and didn't want to wrestle with myself to keep my tongue quiet. "What are you talking of, you great dolt! Edward is an apprentice; he cannot marry until his term is served. He is as likely to be courting me as you are!"
He raised his eyebrows at that, then bent over the pages of manuscript on his knees. And at last I was given peace enough to read the story that had been so interesting to me at breakfast.