Chapter no 9

The Silent Companions

I am not nearly as organised for the royal visit as I wish to be, what with the snow – snow! – at Whitsun, which prevented any travel. That terrible frost destroyed most of my plants. All will need reseeding, or replacing with full-grown blooms. Thank heaven the London hothouses managed to send us roses and lilies! Pray God we can keep them alive in the next three months. Another small mercy was the survival of Hetta’s herb patch. Those little green sprigs have proved hardier than most and the blue-grey stalks of the thistle thrive.

My anxiety increases with Josiah’s burgeoning hopes. He is already drawing up plans for a new wing to the house. This morning he came into my rooms as I dressed, carrying a parcel wrapped in silk.

‘What is that?’ I asked his reflection in the mirror. I had the sense of something cold behind me, something ice-bright.

‘It is a gift, my lady.’ He placed a hand on my shoulder. ‘Can you guess it?’

‘It is a jewel to wear when the King and Queen visit. A . . . necklace?’

He chuckled. ‘My little prophetess.’

He began to unwrap the package. I squinted, not seeing but feeling his hands at my throat. The necklace jangled and touched my collarbone. Sharp, cold. It was like a band of snow.

‘Open your eyes,’ Josiah laughed. ‘Lizzy, pull the curtain, your mistress is half blinded.’

I heard the curtain swish behind me and slowly rolled my eyelids open.

I had predicted the object, but not the quality. Diamonds ringed my neck and dropped down into my bosom. The shape was a bow with three pear drops. Every stone clear-cut, pure as water. The necklace might have belonged to the Queen herself.

‘Josiah . . .’

I caught a glimpse of his face in the mirror. He glowed with pride. ‘This will go down to our ancestors, Annie. To James’s wife and his son’s wife after that. Every great family needs an heirloom. These will be the Bainbridge diamonds.’

My lips parted. It was on the tip of my tongue to say I already had jewels from his mother but there was a heaviness, a prickle in the atmosphere that warned me against it. ‘They are very beautiful. Can we . . .’ I shot a look at Lizzy and lowered my voice. ‘Can we afford it, dearest?’

He frowned. ‘Why would you worry about a thing like that? The Midsummer rents will be in soon.’

Rents we had put up since last quarter, I recalled.

‘Of course.’ The diamonds lay heavy on my chest. When I moved them against my skin they were painfully cold. ‘Forgive me, it is only . . . I have never owned anything so fine! In truth, I am a little afraid of it.’

I could not help but recall how Mary spoke of diamonds, many years ago.

‘They ward off the evil eye,’ she told me. ‘Protect you from the darkest magic.’

Was that why Josiah placed them about my neck? Did he suspect my stillroom housed more than simple herbs?

Feeling queasy, I touched my throat and looked at his reflection in the mirror.

His cheeks lifted as he smiled. ‘You must become accustomed to the best jewels, my lady, as will befit your station as my wife. I wish to see these diamonds upon your person every day.’

A hint of the diamonds’ ice in his voice. Not merely a wish: a command.

Behind him, Lizzy stood at the window. One wrinkled hand lay on her collarbone, as if she too felt the chill creeping across her skin.

I swallowed. The diamonds moved. ‘As you desire it, my lord.’



Today I took a trip into Torbury St Jude. The weather is not warm, but at least it is drier. The flood waters have receded and the roads are passable. We travelled between shops in the carriage, for remnants of puddles oiled the streets and the wind whipped up and down the alleys most violently.

‘I have the new napery,’ I told Jane, checking off the list on my fingers. ‘The silver is being polished. The dresses should arrive from London next month.’

‘Mrs Dawson looked scandalised you didn’t order from her shop, mistress,’ Jane said.

She did, poor dear. But what did she expect? This is no country ball. The King and Queen, upon my soul! They will expect fashionable slashed velvet, the most exquisite lace.

‘I cannot concern myself with Mrs Dawson at present,’ I said. ‘There will be time enough for her later. For the moment, I am only concerned with pleasing Queen Henrietta Maria.’

‘Mistress, the Queen can’t help but be pleased with all that fancy decoration in her bedroom and the improvements you’ve made. It’s enough to put her head in a spin.’

I smiled, proud. ‘It looks fine to us, Jane. But she is the Queen. She grew up in the Château de Saint-Germain-en-Laye. It will take a mighty effort to impress her. She likes curiosities, strange things no one else has seen.’ I looked out of the window. The oppressive milky sky made our little town appear bleak indeed. Our horse lifted its tail and dumped a load on the cobbles. I sighed. ‘Where will I find exotic things like that in Torbury St Jude?’

‘Mayhap just up the way here, mistress. There’s an establishment I heard talk of at the market.’

I turned to see the shop Jane indicated on the left. It was a small place, pushed back from the straggling, uneven row of buildings that lined the street. The lower storey was made of brick; the upper consisted of old beams and plaster.

‘Hold!’ I called. The horses pulled up. As the click of their hooves ceased I heard the shop’s sign groaning in the wind. I could not make

the picture out, but I thought I saw the words Fancy Goods painted above the mullioned window. ‘Jane, I do not know this place. How long has it been there?’

She grinned. ‘I thought you knew everything, mistress.’

I let her sauciness pass. In truth I sensed a strangeness about the shop which I could not put into words. I knew I should not be able to drive on without going inside. There was something important, something there . . .

I have felt that way but once before: it was on that freezing January day, some nine years ago, when I opened Mary’s old leather book and recited its words over the mashed herbs in my stillroom. It was the exact sensation: the apprehension, the certainty.

‘Let us go in.’ I rapped on the roof. The footman sprang down and tried to open the door. It did not want to yield. I put my fingers on the handle and attempted to help him, but it was as if the wind was an iron hand, pushing against me. Barring my passage.

Straining with all my might, I pushed back. The door gave way, blowing open with such force that it slammed back into the body of the coach. I tumbled into the footman’s arms.

‘Are you well, mistress?’

I was embarrassed, but unharmed. My skirts were in much disorder; the wind snatched at them and tore a ribbon loose from my hair. I watched it sail off into the grey oblivion of the sky. ‘I am perfectly well. Jane, you will need to take my arm to the door.’

I was thankful for Jane’s stoutness and her thick, country waist. An odd pair we must have looked, heads down, battling against the wind; Jane in her dirty green kirtle and I billowing in satin and lace.

The wind made instruments of all it touched. From behind came the clink of the horses’ harness, beckoning us back; ahead, the sign creaked as it swung. Its moan grew louder with each step, until at last I could hear the horses no more.

Jane thumped the shop door open with one of her broad shoulders, setting a bell jangling. ‘You first, mistress.’ She all but pushed me in – I paid it no heed, for I was glad of the shelter.

A short, balding man leapt up as we entered. A much-worn maroon jerkin stretched over his stomach. He had small, hot eyes –pig’s eyes, I thought – which fluttered at the sight of us. ‘Good morrow, ladies. You gave me quite a start.’

‘I do apologise. We were somewhat blown in.’ ‘Is it breezy out?’

Jane banged the door shut behind us. The bell jangled again. ‘Breezy? It’s fit to blow a gale!’

‘Indeed?’ He smiled, seemed to recover his composure. ‘In that case, I expect you are in need of some refreshment. Let me fetch the wine and sugared plums. Every customer is treated like a duchess in this shop.’

Above his left shoulder hung an ornate gold mirror, carved with cherubs and flowers. My reflection stared back, thoroughly dishevelled. I did not feel much like a duchess.

As he fetched our wine, we had leisure to look around us. The shop was much larger than it had appeared outside, but curiosities packed every inch of it. Dusty cases hung from the walls with displays of crystal and stone lurking beneath the murky glass. Strange, stuffed birds from foreign climes glowered at us, their feathers brightly dyed. Suspended from the ceiling was a skeleton I have never seen before – some monstrous creature with a large horn, like a unicorn, only it protruded from the nose. Even the air tasted unusual, warm with spices.

‘Thank you,’ I said, taking my glass of wine from the shopkeeper. I noticed that it trembled in his hand. ‘I am surprised we have not come across your shop before. Are you new to Torbury St Jude?’

‘Just arrived.’ He proffered the tray of sugared plums. Jane was quick off the mark to seize one and stuff it whole in her mouth. ‘My name is Samuels. I have spent my days travelling the world, madam, and now here I am, with all its rarities laid out before you.’

It was good wine. Another import, I suspected.

I ran my fingers across a cabinet and tugged on a velvet tab attached to the drawer. It slid open. Rows and rows of birds’ eggs lay before my eyes: blue, speckled, some minuscule, one the size of an apple. Nature’s jewels. Not even the diamonds at court could rival treasures rare and delicate as these. ‘In faith, it must be hard to part with your collection. Is not every item a memento of your journey?’

‘There are some memories one does not wish to keep.’ His face hardened for a moment. ‘Besides, I like to share what I have found. People always want a curiosity to show their friends.’

Carefully, I picked up a sugared plum. Its granules stuck to my fingers. ‘I confess, I am here on such an errand. Come August, we will entertain some illustrious guests.’

‘Ah! This way then, madam. I will show you the ivory. Exquisite pieces beyond all compare. Any guest will swoon.’

I popped the plum in my mouth and followed him.

It was a giddy half hour, picking and choosing from the world’s treasure chest. I found dried tulips mounted in frames and a mechanical cannon that fired shot. I was carried away, I confess. I felt quite ashamed when I turned and, in the low candlelight, saw another customer waiting.

‘Oh!’ I cried. ‘Pray, forgive me.’ I turned to Mr Samuels. ‘That must do for now, I am keeping you from business.’

His small eyes followed mine. For a moment, I thought he was afraid. Then he laughed.

I saw my mistake: it was no customer standing in the corner but a board, painted to resemble a person. So splendidly was it worked that you would not notice it was a piece of art, at first glance. The subject was a woman resting with her hand on her hip. Shadows were painted on her face at the exact angles light would hit from the window of the shop.

‘You have run ahead of me,’ Mr Samuels said. ‘I was coming to these.’ He walked over to the object. I could see, by the light of the window, beads of sweat stood upon his brow. ‘These counterfeits can trick the best of us. Do you know the meaning of trompe l’oeil?’

‘A trick of the eye?’

‘Precisely. A playful deception. Come hither.’ He pointed to the shoulder of the cut-out. His finger hovered an inch away from the wood. ‘See the bevelled edges? They stop it from looking flat.’ I peeped around the back, still surprised to find it was not solid. She was not real and yet I felt I could not touch her, could not meet her eye. ‘I have more of these I can show you. Children carrying fruit. Maids and sweepers. A lady with her lute.’

‘Wherever are they from?’

‘These were given to me in Amsterdam. They call them “silent companions”.’ He cleared his throat. ‘Those Dutchmen, madam, they love their little deceits. It’s not just the tulips they are mad for.

They have perspective boxes and pretend food – even doll’s houses fitted out finer than a duke’s palace.’

I turned to Jane. ‘They are good sport, are they not? I can imagine guests coming across these boards with a little cry. A moment of shock, then laughter and conversation.’

‘I do not know if Her Majesty would wish to be shocked,’ said Jane.

Mr Samuels looked at me with a new respect. ‘Her Majesty, say you? The Queen?’

I coloured again, this time with pleasure. ‘Yes. We are greatly honoured. So you see why it is important that I choose—’

He held out a hand. The fingers were fat, like sausages, and marked by the weather. ‘Yes, yes,’ he interrupted, ‘you must have the best of everything. May I humbly recommend these items?’ Once more he gestured to the figure, but he did not let his hand make contact with it. I deduced the item was expensive, even too precious to touch.

‘They are unlike anything I have seen before. I shall certainly consider them.’

‘What is there to consider, dear madam? They are just the thing to please Her Majesty.’ There was a plea in his voice, in his eyes. Perchance business was not going as well as he had hoped.

‘I have taken a quantity of goods already,’ I said, trying to tally my spending. Something this rare would surely stretch beyond my purse? ‘It would be fitting to consult my husband before—’

‘But your lord will only counsel you as I do. I doubt any man in England has seen the like of these.’

I thought of Josiah, of the way he pined for recognition from the King. ‘We may desire one or two . . .’

‘But the effect will be diminished. Come, I will let you take the whole collection.’

Usually, I would be wary of a person desperate to peddle his goods, but I wanted Mr Samuels’s strange toys. They were calling to me, watching me, baiting me to take them with their painted eyes.

‘I am unsure whether . . .’

‘For a special price.’ He smiled. ‘I promise you, there is no better method to surprise the Queen. She will never forget the companions.’

I bought them all.

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