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Chapter Four

I make conversation with the bookseller



The morning was well under way when I left the house in Covent Garden. The sky was leaden and the cobbles wet. I wrapped my embroidered silk shawl tight around my shoulders. I wore my finest day dress and my hat was tied firmly over my curls. I had applied just enough powder to my skin such that it appeared to glow.  All in all, I was as a rose grown in a Parson’s garden. I trusted that none could tell me from the fine ladies who obtain carriages to the better parts of town. All that remained was to fix pattens to my feet to keep the worst of the mud from the silk. 

Thus attired, my resolve set on finding out more about William Westman and saving my own skin into the bargain, I picked my way through the motley throng and entered Thomas Davis’ domain, which was but a few doors from our own. I had never stepped foot inside a bookshop before (despite that I had learned to read and write at my late father’s knee). I was excited at what I might find. The shop was somewhat darker than I expected, with a smell reminiscent of vanilla. Shelves held leather-bound books of all sizes. I ran my finger across the spines of those books on the first shelf to my left. What delights, what worlds, what thoughts were encased therein?  I wished then that my learning had not ceased so abruptly upon my father’s death, for I had only a smattering of Latin and no Greek. Yet, I was intelligent and could make summation fairly well. We are not all ignorant strumpets. Some of us have merely fallen from the heights and must make our living as others allow.

“It has been too long since I read a good book,” I said. It was no lie. I had read little since making London my home.

Mr. Davis peered over the top of his magnifying glasses at me. He held a clutch of pamphlets.

“You are in the wrong shop.”

“Oh. Do ladies not read then?” I said. A cheeky smile played on my face.

“But of course they do. Of course. But…”

“But you are not used to a woman such as I?” 

My boldness of spirit had given me away, as ever. Mr. Davis appeared flustered. 

“Are you looking for anything in particular? A pamphlet of some kind? A short book that will not tax you overmuch?” He waved his pamphlets, as if to ward me off.

“I need some information,” I said. I stepped closer to him so that he could see me more clearly.

He coughed…  nay spluttered. “Information? What kind of information?”

“Gentlemen meet here on a regular basis to discuss matters of philosophy and such like, do they not?”

“Yes. Yes they do, but it is highbrow stuff.”

I nodded and took a book from the shelf. Mr. Davis jumped and hovered anxiously at my elbow. He plucked the book from my hands.

“Wednesday evening I shut the door at a half past six. They arrive shortly after. I do not think they would welcome a woman to their ranks. That is what I mean,” he said.

“No?” I said.

“No. Though there is one who… No you are too…” 

Mr. Davis fluttered his fingers.

“Too what?”

Mr. Davis posited his words most carefully. 

“I have never met Mrs. Thrale, but Dr. Johnson speaks of her most highly. I do not think you are her.”

His inference was obvious. He thought me stupid.

“Forgive me, but I never said I was. No, I have recently met a young man and was given to understand that he visits this shop to meet with the literary gentlemen. He has asked that I enquire of Oliver Goldsmith’s play The Good-Natured Man. He said you had promised to put a copy aside for him.” 

It was a play I knew well, for it had showed at the theatre in the previous year and printed copies were much in demand. 

“I wish merely to deliver said copy into his hands.”

“Oh… oh, well. What is his name?”

I paused before I replied. I was taking a huge risk revealing myself so close to home. 

“Mr. William Westman,” I said, though I almost choked on his name, so close to me was the trauma of his death.

Mr. Davis frowned. “No. I don’t believe I have anything for him. Are you sure?”

“I’m quite sure.” I made a play of my annoyance. “I told him I would have it ready for him when he returned from his visit to his father.” His father? What was I thinking? I did not know if his father was alive or dead – and oh, but someone would have to tell the family. I gulped back a sob. He was dead. He was dead and still lay upon my bed. It was too horrible, too distressing to even think about.

Mr. Davis ran his finger down a list of customers written in a large ledger. 

“No. Nothing for Mr. Westman.” He shook his head and pursed his lips. “Perhaps you are mistaken. There is a bookshop in the Piazza. Have you tried there?” 

I felt most discomfited by his attitude. Had he caught me in my lie?

“Perhaps. You do know him though?”

“Who? Mr. Westman? Yes. I know him. He comes in quite often. He has recently taken rooms in Wild Street. I have delivered books there for him. Next door to the Milliners. He is visiting his father you say?” Mr. Davis frowned. Surely, he had discerned my lie? 

The doorbell rang and an elderly gentleman entered. Mr. Davis cocked his head in the customer’s direction, but left his eyes on me.

“I am going to have to ask you to leave now,” he said.

“But Mr. Davis…” I wanted to know more of Westman. I had to know more.

“Please… depart forthwith. There is nothing here for you.”

“But…”

“Go.” He waved his hand at me.

I sighed and nodded an agreement. I could not afford to make a fuss. 

“Very well,” I said, and I flashed a smile at the elderly customer. “Good day to you.”

Out on the street, I clutched at my breast, my breath coming hard and fast. I had told the first of many lies associated with this matter and the need to remain calm and collected in the face of danger had brought me to the edge of exhaustion. Faces turned to me, their stares piercing my already weakened confidence. I took a few steps but had to stop. My head was splitting, my bodice drenched in sweat, despite the chill air. I steadied myself against the wall, afraid to walk on, afraid to go back. Gradually, my panic subsided. For all that my world had fallen apart, I must not be deterred from my task. I must find the fortitude to continue, for what else could I do? Wait for the law to drag me to Newgate? Be strung up by the neck? My hand went instinctively to my throat.

“No,” I cried. A man I did not know turned to stare, but it was as if I was naught but a ghost, for he quickly turned away again. I must hurry to Wild Street and find the dead man’s lodging house.

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