London is so many things – noisy, terrifying, stinking, a mad hurly burly of so many people of all conditions, from the wealthy who ride, like us, in splendid coaches, to maimed and starving beggars who thrust their hands out like claws for whatever richer folk deign to give. But it is also wonderfully exciting, even exhilarating. There is so much to see! Wherever I turn my head, there is something new – a beautiful fountain, perhaps, or a handsome church, or a young woman selling flowers from a wicker basket balanced on her head. So many houses, so many streets, so many shops – in one row there are more things for sale than I have ever seen before in my life, and all of them marvels, from the brightly coloured bird in a gilded cage, to fine-wrought knives and forks in silver, all glittering in the afternoon sun, and bales of silks and satins in jewel colours, and lace like the finest cobwebs, strung fragile across the rosemary bushes in autumn. Despite the smells – and they are so strong and so unpleasant that many people carry pomander balls or oranges spiked with cloves close to their faces, so that they may breathe in air more fragrant – I cannot wait to explore this vast and pulsing ant’s nest of people.
But I must wait, for Mother is very tired from the journey, which has taken three days because of the parlous state of the roads – there has been so much rain that the highways are quite awash, and the coach and horses so caked with mud that they must be sluiced down every evening, and Harriet complains of a headache from the ceaseless jolting over ruts and potholes. We have lodgings in a fine part of town, on a broad street called The Strand, near to a magnificent stone archway built across the road: it is called Temple Bar, so Father says, and there are four statues on its upper part, the two facing west being His Majesty the King, and his father the blessed Martyr Charles the First, and the two facing east being King James and his wife Queen Anne. The Bar is made of white shining stone , and Father, with a smile, has told me that it was finished the year before I was born, so it is twelve years old.
But after a night of rest (although I do not sleep much, not only from excitement at the delights to come, but from all the noises outside our windows, church bells and clock chimes and cries of the watchmen and sometimes shouts and alarms, which my father tells us are naught but rough men brawling outside low taverns, and all so different from the quiet of our country home, where the loudest sound in the dark is the hoot of an owl or the cry of a fox) we are all refreshed and ready for a day of exploration. Harriet, of course, wishes to buy silk and lace for her wedding gown, and have it made up in the latest fashion, for she says that our own tailor at home will not be skilled enough. Dilly has a fancy for a new hat, with ribbons and trimmings, and perhaps a veil, though Mother says that many women of ill repute wear them at the theatre and other such places. Of course, Dilly and Harriet and Pen are on fire to go, having been to Drury Lane last year, and our father has promised us that if there is a play that is suitable, he shall hire a box for us and we shall go. After all, His Majesty and the Duke of York often attend performances, and many great ladies.
But while my sisters have fixed their minds upon the play, I have only one thought in my head, and that is the visit to the shops nearby, in the New Exchange. I am expecting a room like that of Master Fulcher, small, with tables and boxes set out, a narrow choice of embroidery silks and stocks of lace, gloves, ribbons, feathers and other trimmings and fripperies. But the New Exchange is not one shop, but many, with an arcade along which everyone walks, and booths full of every kind of luxurious delight on display, while the shop girls, dressed as fine as any great lady, cry up the delights of the wares within. Harriet nudges me sharply and tells me not to gape like a country bumpkin, but such are the wonders before me, I cannot help but stare. Mother takes us into one shop which sells embroidery silks in every colour imaginable, blues more brilliant than a kingfisher’s feathers, yellows and golds like the flowers of the buttercup or primrose, vivid greens that make me suddenly long for the grass in the fields around our home, soft roses and strident scarlets and a crimson so deep it looks like wine. While my sisters, even Pen, cluster round the lace that the girl lays out on the table, draped with a black cloth to show it off at best advantage, I choose the silks that I need for my casket, and pay for them with some of the money that my father gave to me to spend in London. Then our mother suggests that I buy a new thimble in silver, to replace the one I was given when a little child, which is made of brass, and rather too small for me now. So we go to another booth, where they have so many for sale that I am dazzled, all sparkling in the candlelight, and then I spy some strange shaped objects that, so the shop girl tells us, are both a thimble and a needlecase. Mother, smiling, says that a needlecase would be very useful, for I am always mislaying mine, and once one rolled on the floor and was lost between the boards, and another somehow became fixed in poor Rufus’s paw so that he yelped most piteously until we realised what was wrong and Mother pulled it out. After much discussion and debate, I settle upon one which is most beautifully engraved with curls and diamond shapes. At one end it has a cover which lifts up at the push of a tiny button to reveal the thimble inside, and a ring so that it can be fastened to a girdle or a purse, and not get lost or dropped. The other, narrow end has a cap which unscrews. To go inside it, I pick out half a dozen steel needles of differing sizes, from the finest for the most delicate work, to thicker and more substantial ones for sewing linen or even canvas.
Then the shop girl, a pretty creature with dark curls and a blue silk gown, brings out an array of beautiful French embroidery scissors, fine and sharp, with gorgeous cases in silver or enamels, and I look at Mother, and she smiles and tells me to choose a pair, for mine are old and blunt and kept in a plain case of worn leather. It takes a long time, for I cannot decide between such beauties, but eventually I tell the girl that I will have a pair that are plainer than the others, but which sit snugly in my hand: they are scissors for use, not for show. And to keep them in, a case of white enamel, decorated with coloured flowers in blue and yellow.
Meanwhile my sisters, furnished with coin likewise by our father, have bought lace and ribbon, and Harriet has an ivory fan. We leave the New Exchange very satisfied, Mother’s maid Betty carrying all our parcels in her basket, and then Mother tells the others to make their way back to our lodgings, for she and I have another destination. They do not complain, for they are all longing to deck themselves in their purchases, and with Jack, the footman, in attendance, we walk up the Strand towards the city, until we arrive at a shop under the sign of three stags’ heads, and the name above the door tells us that the proprietor is one Jacob Haley, cabinet maker. Mother tells me that he has made the caskets for all my sisters, and is a master of his art. We enter a room smelling faintly of wood and glue, but there is no sign of any boxes being made, only an array of them on the shelves and on the counter, and Master Haley bowing low, addressing Mother as ‘my lady’, and smiling very kindly at me. Mother explains that I am embroidering panels to be put on a casket, and asks to see some that have been part finished, so that I might see how it is done, and decide what the interior of mine will look like. So he shows us a dozen or more, of many different sizes, lined with carnation silk, or beautiful marbled paper, with drawers and mirrors and trays, secret compartments and slots to hold rings and spaces for scent bottles, until I wonder whether any casket could be made large enough to encompass everything within it that I might want. And then ... and then he opens the last one, telling us of a wonder within, and I gaze upon a garden, in perfect miniature, with flowers and paths and a lawn. I gasp in admiration, but Mother says that there is no stitchery at work here, and a closer look tells me that the flowers are made of paper and the lawn of feathers. I tell her that I would love to make something similar to go into my own casket, but much smaller, so that there will be room for other things inside as well, and all embroidered, for I am sure, with the fearless certainty of youth, that my skills will be more than equal to the task, and Mother’s questioning look makes me even more adamant. And I leave Master Haley’s shop with no further thoughts of exploring London, or seeing the sights, or even going to the play, for all I desire is to return home and continue my work on my casket.