Chapter 1


“Mistress Dorothy!”

The words were breathed rather than uttered, just as if the speaker were in mortal dread of being overheard by anyone save the fair-haired girl of fourteen who stood peering through the tall, diamond-shaped window.

Dorothy Gresham turned swiftly.

“Yes, Betty,” she whispered. “Has the great moment come at last?”

“Ay, my young mistress​—​’tis now or never. The men-folk, all save old Peter, have gone with Sir Wilfred to my Lord Mayor’s reception, and the women are gathered in the housekeeper’s room. Quick! There is not a moment to lose if you would escape.”

Dorothy Gresham groped in the darkness, for the room wherein she stood was only illuminated by a pale shaft of moonlight, and quickly a slight rustle told Betty, the serving-maid, that her young mistress was donning hat and cloak.

“I am ready,” whispered Dorothy.

And so saying, she tip-toed to the door​—​a mode of progress that was rendered necessary by the creaking floor-boards. The houses of London, in the year 1666, for the most part were as old and ramshackle as they were picturesque, and this gaunt, timbered mansion which stood in Bishopsgate Street was no exception to the rule. It was owned by Dorothy’s uncle, Sir Wilfred Hawkes, alderman, and one reputed to be wealthy. The knight, however, had other purposes for his money, and Crosby House might tumble about the ears of his retainers for aught he cared.

The exit from the room safely accomplished, Dorothy and the maid stood in the broad-panelled corridor with fingers interlocked​—​listening. The old place was never quite free from sounds; behind the wainscot was a happy hunting-ground for the mice, and they could be heard scuttling about now.

But these sounds had no terrors for Dorothy Gresham​—​the noises she feared to hear were those of people moving below. If that happened then the whole course of her life might be altered.

She was escaping from the house where for two years she had practically been a prisoner!

“All seems well!” breathed Dorothy.

The maid nodded, and together they crept along the corridor until they reached the wide staircase. They descended a step at a time, and arriving at the massive door which communicated with the street, Dorothy expressively indicated the bolts. Betty, the maid, smiled reassuringly, thereby conveying the information that the door had only to be pulled to swing back noiselessly on its hinges.

Dorothy pressed the girl’s hand. If she did succeed in escaping, and was able to join her father, it was almost entirely due to Betty Compton’s assistance. It was Betty who had befriended her during the miserable time she had spent at Crosby House; it was Betty who had smuggled in that letter from Dorothy’s father telling her that his ship would be anchored off London Bridge in two days’ time; and it was Betty who had prepared the way to escape.

Like two ghosts they flitted into the street, and for a moment they sheltered in the deep shadows of a doorway. Here they must part, and the thought of it made them cling together. Betty, the rough, unlettered country lass, and Dorothy Gresham, who traced her descent from one of the oldest London families, gave no thought to the barriers of class, but embraced like sisters.

“Oh, my dear young mistress!” whimpered Betty. “I am never like to see thee again​—​never​—​never! I cannot part from my old mother, else would I gladly follow you on this venture​—​even to cross the seas.”

And she shuddered at the thought, having never in her life seen the sea.

“I would indeed that you could come with me,” choked Dorothy. “One day​—​who knows?​—​I may return with father, frustrate my wicked uncle’s scheming, and get back the estate he hath stolen from us with his lies and crafty dealing. Then Betty, you kind, noble, and brave girl, you shall live happily with me for ever and ever.”

“Ah, if it could only be!” returned Betty, wiping her eyes. “’Tis too much to hope for​—​yet I’ll e’en hope, being ever of a hopeful nature. And now get ye gone. Remember, ’tis the third house on London Bridge, a silk shop​—​ye cannot miss it for the large sign of a pair of shears that hangs over the door. Speak my name and old Bachelor and his granddaughter Ann will know that ye’re the maid they be expecting. The Fates guard ye, Mistress Dorothy.”

She broke off, wrenched herself free from Dorothy’s clinging hands, and darting across the cobblestones, in an instant was lost to view.

Dorothy drew a deep breath. All her nerve and resolution were required now she was alone. True, London Bridge, she believed, was not a great way, but the city streets after dark were infested with footpads who would not scruple to possess themselves of the few crowns she carried. Besides, never before had Dorothy gone on a venture unattended, and she was horribly afraid.

Yet her courage was greater than her fear, and when courage can rise superior to fear it is the highest form of bravery; therefore, although her heart was quaking, she stepped out of the doorway, and with as bold a front as she could muster, strode swiftly forward under the overhanging houses that lined either side of old Bishopsgate Street.

Every now and then she shot an anxious glance behind her. Had her flight been discovered? The thought sent her footsteps pattering faster than ever. Fully fifty men mustered at the call of her uncle, and they would set out in hot haste directly it was found that she was missing.

As she hesitated, she heard a faint cry in the distance of “Fire! Fire!”

Dorothy waited, strangely thrilled. The sound came from several streets away, but she glanced upwards, half expecting to see a red glow tinging the star-lit September sky. But the dark, uniform green remained unbroken, and there was nothing to tell her that this moment was ever to figure in history as the start of the great Fire of London.

And then suddenly came the lumbering figure of one of the City watch came into view. In one hand he carried a lantern, and in the other a stout oaken staff.

“Nine o’ the clock!” he mumbled. “Nine o’ the clock, good folk​—​and a fine evening.”

Hardly had the words escaped his lips than from a dark alley there suddenly emerged four swift forms, who hurled themselves upon the watchman and sent him spinning.

Dorothy gave a startled cry and shrank against the wall. How was she to know that almost nightly the ’prentices of old London made it a practice to play pranks of this sort on the watch. Then, as a loud burst of laughter rang out from the assailants of the watchman, Dorothy realised that the offence was not so serious as she had imagined, and her indignation getting the better of her alarm she darted up to the struggling group.

“Cowards!” she cried at the top of her voice.

The apprentices, startled by this sudden interruption, fell back, and the watchman, leaping to his feet, fled at the top of his speed, shouting as he ran, “Watch! Watch! A rescue! A rescue!” But the apprentices made no attempt to go after him; they were far too interested in Dorothy.

“Why, ’tis only a girl!” cried one. “How now, Mistress Spoil-sport, who gave you leave to interfere with ’prentice rights?”

“Rights!” echoed Dorothy boldly. “Wrongs, you mean. Four of you against one. Shame on you! You are cowards!”

The apprentices regarded her queerly.

“It must seem like that to you,” answered the one who had first spoken. “And yet if you knew that man you would say we did rightly. The watch are supposed to keep law and order, yet yonder knave, like most of his kind, is hand in glove with footpads and robbers. Believe me, little lady, I speak the truth in this matter.”

“Yes, yes,” chimed in another. “It is as Will says. Ask any shopkeeper of Old London what protection the watchmen give him, and I’ll warrant he’ll look down his nose. You must indeed be a stranger to the city not to know this.”

Dorothy glanced in bewilderment from one to the other.

“True, I know little of the ways of London,” she muttered. “I am bound for the ‘Bridge,’ and I’ll thank you kindly if you could tell me which of the ways to take.”

“Friends,” said the ’prentice named Will. “It would be a shame on our noble order if we let this lass go on her way unattended at this time of night. Come, let us guide her to the Bridge and see her in safety. What say you, little lady, will you accept the escort of four honest ’prentice lads?”

“Indeed I will,” replied Dorothy, for their voices were kindly. “’Tis a shop on London Bridge that I seek, a shop kept by Master Bachelor, who deals in silks.”

They told her that they knew it quite well.

“And please, we must hurry,” added Dorothy.

“Hast run away from home?” began one of the ’prentices, but he whom they called Will sternly bade him hold his tongue.

“’Tis not right that we should pry into her affairs,” he said. “And now, young mistress​—​forward! With one either side of you, one in front and me behind, the king himself could not be better guarded.”

As they formed up in this order, the ’prentice leader glanced back.

“Lads!” he cried. “Look at the glow in the sky. ’Tis surely some big fire broke out. Not far away either​—​in the Marke Lane neighbourhood, I should guess. Let’s hope ’tis not got under when we arrive.”

He need not have worried. There was little fear of that happening.