A novel of London, 1662
Shutters slammed open and shut. Something very heavy boomed and crashed down the lane. Above the din, Beatrice heard cries of anguish, and she sucked in her breath. She hoped no one had gotten hurt.
Beatrice looked about the high person’s room. Rubbish rained heavy, making everything filthy, including an already untidy desktop. She looked up to see if the ceiling were caving in, and saw patches of plaster break away. Dust rose from the floor planks, and in between blasts of wind, she heard rats squeaking. How she was to scrub a chamber with this clangor raging inside and out, she could not think, and Beatrice set down the bucket.
She must go find a broom.
Later, as the gale beat heavy against the house, trampled across the lanes, and down alleyways, Beatrice strove to sweep up the dirt that continually made its way into the man’s office. Wind whistled down the chimney, spewing coal dust into the chamber. She’d already cleaned the hearth, but it hadn’t done a bit of good. This house needed a chimney sweep. Whatever strides she made were abruptly cut short by new gusts of wind, and more dust flying.
With not one chamber getting cleaned, she would not be paid that shilling. In a pet, Beatrice plopped onto the chair at the desk. She wanted to kick something, but swept away some ceiling debris instead. Leaves of paper went with it, deepening her ire. She got up to retrieve them, and noticed strange writing scrawled across the papers. Very odd.
The man who owned this house must not expect his servants to read, but she knew how. Her papa said she excelled in it, and he often shook his head, exclaiming, “Lass, if you were a lad, you’d do well in this here harsh world.”
Taking a candle from the mantelshelf, she placed it on the desk to study the writings. She loved riddles, puzzles, and the like, and thought these could be easily solved. With the weather causing all sorts of fits wherein she could not clean, she may as well take a moment to look at it.
It wouldn’t hurt nothing, would it?
The leaf ran full with groups of numbers. She counted the numbers, trying to separate the meanings. Beatrice lengthened her arm to gain a full picture of the page. With eyes squinted, the number groupings brought words to mind.
Words meant letters.
She brought the leaf closer, and studied the numbers. Within the groupings, they went from number one upward to twenty-six. She reckoned the numbers spoke of the alphabet, and Beatrice scoffed. For certain, she’d broken the riddle right easy. She searched for a blank leaf, took up the quill, and began to write down the letters in relation to the numbers.
The numbers told a tale of skullduggery in London City, very horrid, and a plot to kill the king. Did the fellow of the house understand of what the letter spoke? Was he a part of this terrible deed?
She rested her elbow on the pile of papers, and felt something wobble underneath. Raising a corner of the pile, she saw a dish of white liquid. Oo-ee, that would cause all sorts of bother should it spill, and she smelled it. Milk.
How very strange.
She moved the dish to a safer corner of the desk, then once again picked up the paper that was filled with cunning deceit. As she raised the leaf, candlelight shined through, along with scripted notes in the margins. Her breath caught, and she brought the paper closer to her.
The handwriting along the margins disappeared.
Beatrice cried aloud, “What?” And she swung the paper back to the candle.
The writing reappeared, most astonishing. She moved the paper this way and that until she saw sentences.
She bent her head to read them.
Wind battered the house, and all sorts of things crashed along the lane. With the noise outside, and very engrossed in the mysterious handwriting, she never considered reading the man’s letters would do her ill. The conceit of it tantalized her brains, and she wondered why such a prosperous person would dally in treason.
Unless he was a teller of tales, and was in the midst of writing a book. If it were printed in a book of penny merriments, it would be a thrilling read. She must go to St. Paul’s Yard and buy one of these little books. Mayhap, she could find a playwright to put it into a play, most lovely, and Beatrice smiled. She fell into a gentle moment of woolgathering...
Suddenly, a balled fist slammed on the desktop, causing her skin to shrivel right off her bones. Beatrice squawked, and shot off the chair. The leaf flew out of her hand to land in the bucket of suds-flattened water. Her heart pounded in her throat, and she went all a’ sweat.
A man, still in his hat and cloak, hollered, “What the bloody hell art thou doing prowling through me desk and reading me letters?”