"It looks like a demented hedgehog," I observed. Elizabeth's London was filled with needlelike spires that stuck up from the huddle of buildings that surrounded them. "What is that?" I gasped, pointing to a vast expanse of stone pierced by tall windows. High above the wooden roof was a charred, stout stump that made the building's proportions look all wrong.
"St. Paul's," Matthew explained. This was not Christopher Wren's graceful white-domed masterpiece, its bulk concealed until the last moment by modern office blocks. Old St. Paul's, perched on London's highest hill, was seen all at once.
"Lightning struck the spire, and the wood of the roof caught fire. The English believe it was a miracle the entire cathedral didn't burn to the ground," he continued.
"The French, not surprisingly, believe that the hand of the Lord was evident somewhat earlier in the event," commented Gallowglass. He had met us at Dover, commandeered a boat in Southwark, and was now rowing us all upstream. "No matter when God showed His true colors, He hasn't provided money for its repair."
"Nor has the queen." Matthew devoted his attention to the wharves on the shoreline, and his right hand rested on the hilt of his sword.
I had never imagined that Old St. Paul's would be so big. I gave myself another pinch. I had been administering them since spotting the Tower (it, too, looked enormous without skyscrapers all around) and London Bridge (which functioned as a suspended shopping mall). Many sights and sounds had impressed me since our arrival in the past, but nothing had taken my breath away like my first glimpses of London.
"Are you sure you don't want to dock in town first?" Gallowglass had been dropping hints about the wisdom of this course of action since we'd climbed into the boat.
"We're going to the Blackfriars," Matthew said firmly. "Everything else can wait."
Gallowglass looked dubious, but he kept rowing until we reached the westernmost reaches of the old, walled city. There we docked at a steep set of stone stairs. The bottom treads were submerged in the river, and from the look of the walls the tide would continue to rise until the rest were underwater, too. Gallowglass tossed a line to a brawny man who thanked him profusely for returning his property in one piece.
"You seem only to travel in other people's boats, Gallowglass. Maybe Matthew should give you your own for Christmas," I said drily.
"And deprive me of one of my few pleasures?" Gallowglass's teeth showed in his beard. Matthew's nephew thanked the boatman and tossed him a coin the size and weight of which reduced the poor fellow's previous anxiety to a hazy glow of appreciation.
We passed from the landing through an archway and onto Water Lane, a narrow, twisting artery crowded with houses and shops. With every rising floor, the houses jutted farther over the street, like a clothes chest with the upper drawers pulled out. This effect was heightened by the linens, carpets, and other items hanging out the windows. Everyone was taking advantage of the unusually fine weather to air out lodgings and garments.
Matthew retained a firm grip on my hand, and Gallowglass walked to my right. Sights and sounds came at us from every direction. Fabrics in saturated red, green, brown, and gray swung from hips and shoulders as skirts and cloaks were twitched away from wagon wheels and caught on the packages and weapons carried by passersby. The ring of hammers, the neighing of horses, the distant lowing of a cow, and the sound of metal rolling on stone competed for attention. Dozens of signs bearing angels, skulls, tools, brightly colored shapes, and mythological figures swayed and squeaked in the wind that blew up from the water. Above my head a wooden sign swung on its metal rod. It was decorated with a white deer, its delicate antlers circled with a golden band.
"Here we are," Matthew said. "The Hart and Crown."
The building was half-timbered, like most on the street. A vaulted passage spanned two arrays of windows. A shoemaker was busy at work on one side of the arch, while the woman opposite kept track of several children, customers, and a large account book. She gave Matthew a brisk nod.
"Robert Hawley's wife rules over his apprentices and customers with an iron fist. Nothing happens in the Hart and Crown without Margaret's knowledge," explained Matthew. I made a mental note to befriend the woman at the earliest opportunity.
The passage emptied out into the building's interior courtyard-a luxury in a city as densely packed as London. The courtyard boasted another rare amenity: a well that provided clean water to the residents of the complex. Someone had taken advantage of the courtyard's southern exposure by tearing up the old paving stones to plant a garden, and now its neat, empty beds patiently awaited spring. A group of washerwomen conducted business out of an old shed next to a shared privy.
To the left, a twisting set of stairs rose to our rooms on the first floor, where Françoise was waiting to welcome us on the wide landing. She'd flung open the stout door into the apartments, crowding a cupboard with pierced sides. A goose, denuded of feathers and with its neck broken, was tied to one of the cupboard's knobs.
"At last." Henry Percy appeared, beaming. "We've been waiting for hours. My good lady mother sent you a goose. She heard reports that no fowl are to be had in the city and became alarmed that you would go hungry."
"It is good to see you, Hal," Matthew said with a laugh and a shake of his head at the goose. "How is your mother?"
"Always a termagant at Christmas, thank you. Most of the family found excuses to be elsewhere, but I am detained here at the queen's pleasure. Her Majesty shouted across the audience chamber that I could not be trusted even so far as P-P-Petworth." Henry stammered and looked ill at the recollection.
"You are more than welcome to spend Christmas with us, Henry," I said, taking off my cloak and stepping inside, where the scent of spices and freshly cut fir filled the air.
"It is good of you to invite me, Diana, but my sister Eleanor and brother George are in town and they shouldn't have to brave her on their own."
"Stay with us this evening at least," Matthew urged, steering him to the right, where warmth and firelight beckoned, "and tell us what has happened while we were away."
"All is quiet here," Henry reported cheerfully.
"Quiet?" Gallowglass stomped up the stairs, looking frostily at the earl. "Marlowe's at the Cardinal's Hat, drunk as a fiddler, trading verses with that impoverished scrivener from Stratford who trails after him in hopes of becoming a playwright. For now Shakespeare seems content with learning how to forge your signature, Matthew. According to the innkeeper's records, you promised to pay Kit's room and board charges last week."
"I left them only an hour ago," Henry protested. "Kit knew that Matthew and Diana were due to arrive this afternoon. He and Will promised to be on their best behavior."
"That explains it, then," Gallowglass muttered sarcastically.
"Is this your doing, Henry?" I looked from the entrance hall into our main living quarters. Someone had tucked holly, ivy, and fir around the fireplace and the window frames and mounded them in the center of an oak table. The fireplace was loaded with logs, and a cheerful fire hissed and crackled.
"Françoise and I wanted your first Christmas to be festive," Henry said, turning pink.
The Hart and Crown represented urban living at its sixteenth-century best. The parlor was a good size but felt snug and comfortable. Its western wall was filled with a multipaned window that overlooked Water Lane. It was perfectly situated for people-watching, with a cushioned seat built into the base. Carved wainscoting warmed the walls, each panel covered with twisting flowers and vines.
The room's furnishings were spare but well made. A wide settle and two deep chairs waited by the fireplace. The oak table in the center of the room was unusually fine, less than three feet across but quite long, its legs decorated with the delicate faces of caryatids and herms. A beam set with candles hung over the table. It could be raised and lowered by use of the smooth rope-and-pulley system suspended from the ceiling. Carved lions' heads snarled from the front band of a monstrous cupboard that held a wide array of beakers, pitchers, cups, and goblets-though very few plates, as befitted a vampire household.
Before we settled down to our dinner of roast goose, Matthew showed me our bedroom and his private office. Both were across the entrance hall opposite the parlor. Gabled windows overlooked the courtyard, making both rooms feel light and surprisingly airy. The bedroom had only three pieces of furniture: a four-poster bed with a carved headboard and heavy wooden tester, a tall linen press with paneled sides and door, and a long, low chest under the windows. The last was locked, and Matthew explained that it held his suit of armor and several spare weapons. Henry and Françoise had been in here, too. Ivy crawled up the bedposts, and they'd tied sprigs of holly to the headboard.
Whereas the bedroom looked barely occupied, Matthew's office was clearly well used. Here there were baskets of paper, bags and tankards full of quills, pots of ink, enough wax to make several dozen candles, balls of twine, and so much waiting mail that my heart sank just thinking about it. A comfortable-looking chair with a sloping back and curved arms sat before a table with extendable leaves. Except for the heavy table legs with their bulbous, cup-shaped carvings, everything was plain and practical.
Though I had blanched at the piles of work that awaited him, Matthew was unconcerned. "It can all wait. Not even spies conduct business on Christmas Eve," he told me.
Over dinner we talked more about Walter's latest exploits and the shocking state of traffic in London, and we steered clear of more sober subjects, like Kit's latest drinking binge and the enterprising William Shakespeare. After the plates were cleared, Matthew pulled a small game table away from the wall. He removed a deck of cards from the compartment under the tabletop and proceeded to teach me how to gamble, Elizabethan style. Henry had just persuaded Matthew and Gallowglass to play flapdragon-an alarming game that involved setting raisins alight in a dish of brandy and betting on who could swallow the greatest number-when the sound of carolers rose from the street outside the windows. They were not all singing in the same key, and those who didn't know the words were inserting scandalous details about the personal lives of Joseph and Mary.
"Here, milord," Pierre said, thrusting a bag of coins at Matthew.
"Do we have cakes?" Matthew asked Françoise.
She looked at him as if he'd lost his mind. "Of course we have cakes. They are in the new food cupboard on the landing, where the smell will not disturb anyone," Françoise said, pointing in the direction of the stairs. "Last year you gave them wine, but I do not believe they require it tonight."
"I'll go with you, Matt," Henry volunteered. "I like a good song on Christmas Eve."
The appearance of Matthew and Henry downstairs was marked by a definite uptick in the choir's volume. When the carolers came to a rather uneven finish, Matthew thanked them and passed out coins. Henry distributed the cakes, which led to many bows and a hushed "Thank you, my lord" as the news passed that this was the Earl of Northumberland. The carolers moved off to another house, following some mysterious order of precedence that they hoped would ensure them the best refreshments and payments.
Soon I could no longer smother my yawns, and Henry and Gallowglass began to gather up their gloves and cloaks. Both were smiling like satisfied matchmakers when they headed for the door. Matthew joined me in bed, holding me until I fell asleep, humming carols and naming the city's many bells as they sounded the hour.
"There is St. Mary-le-Bow," he said, listening to the sounds of the city. "And St. Katherine Cree."
"Is that St. Paul's?" I asked as a prolonged clarion sounded.
"No. The lightning that took off the steeple destroyed the bells, too," he said. "That's St. Saviour's. We passed it on our way into town." The rest of London's churches caught up with Southwark's cathedral. Finally a straggler finished with a discordant clang, the last sound I heard before sleep overtook me.