As the door of the cloth merchant's office closed behind them, the two girls exchanged a look.
"Couldn't we, Miss Ros?" begged the shorter of the two, a plump blond in a warm cloak of blue duffel and woolly mittens. "We're not likely ever to get another chance. Just think on it, froze solid all the way from Blackfriars to London Bridge!"
"Mr Braithwaite said it's the first time in living memory," murmured the tall girl in the ruby-red velvet cloak trimmed with white satin. She pulled the white-lined hood over her raven-black hair as the icy air nipped at her ears after the warmth indoors. Burying kid-gloved hands in her muff, she went on, "But if we stay out so long, your hands will freeze, Betsy."
"Oh no, I'll stick 'em in my pockets, see. Do let's."
"It does seem a pity to miss the Frost Fair," Rosabelle admitted, "and I expect maman can spare you for an extra hour or so. All right, let's go."
They turned off Cheapside down Queen Street towards the Thames.
When they reached the wharf, they found the steps down to the ice guarded by watermen swathed in colourful mufflers. Robbed of their usual livelihood by the great freeze, they were charging a fee to allow fair-goers past. Betsy's face fell.
"I shall pay for both of us," said Rosabelle, taking her purse from the reticule dangling from her wrist.
"Good on you, miss," said the boatman who took her coppers, standing aside. "Go careful now, lidies. 'Ang onto that there rope. Them steps is sanded but they's still slicker'n a mollisher's knick-knack."
His fellows guffawed at this touch of wit.
Blushing, Rosabelle hurried past. Not that she understood the man's words, but she could tell by the way the others laughed that her ignorance was fortunate. Besides, the Thames watermen were notoriously almost as foul-mouthed as Billingsgate fishwives.
Betsy at her heels, she started cautiously down the stone stair, grasping the rope looped through iron rings set in the wall of the wharf. All along the riverside quays and docks, as far as she could see, barges, wherries, and a few merchant ships were tied, becalmed by the ice.
A few steps down, Rosabelle stopped to look out over the Thames. The sound of barrel-organs, fiddles, pipes and drums floated across the ice in the sparkling air, punctuated by the shouts of barkers. Flag-bedecked tents, stalls and booths were laid out in two main streets, crossing in the middle.
"Oooh," sighed Betsy in ecstasy, "a merry-go-round, and swings! And look, Miss Ros, donkey rides! Could I? Not all of them, I mean, just one?"
Continuing down the stair, Rosabelle smiled at her companion's childish delight. "If I have enough money on me. They may charge exorbitant prices because of the setting. Which will you choose?"
"I'll have to look closer afore I make up my mind. What about you? What d'you fancy?"
"Oh, the donkeys, I think. I still remember being sick on the swings at Bartholomew Fair when I was a little girl, and why ride a wooden horse when you can ride a real, live donkey?"
"I will, too, then," Betsy decided.
Rosabelle had not really intended to participate, but she did not want to disappoint Betsy, who had few enough pleasures in life. Stepping cautiously across the ice, she wondered how long the Thames would remain frozen. Perhaps she could bring one of the other girls to the Frost Fair tomorrow, and enough money to buy fairings for the rest. Papa would grumble, but he would give way in the end.
A fingerpost stuck in a barrel of stones, pointing towards Southwark on the south bank, announced Freezeland Street. The first tent, a hastily erected shelter of sailcloth over a rough wooden frame, was a tavern. On the benches within, men sat quaffing ale and bantering with serving wenches bundled up in warm wraps. Opposite was a skittle alley, and next to it a barker invited passers-by to step up and try their luck at the Wheel of Fortune.
"Oysters! Fresh oysters, sixpence a dozen," cried a woman carrying two buckets on a yoke.
"Hot chestnuts, roasted on ice!" called a man sitting by a brazier full of glowing coals. Though it was raised on iron feet, it stood in a puddle.
"I hope the ice is good and thick," said Betsy.
"Let's have some chestnuts," Rosabelle proposed. "They'll warm your fingers."
She bought two-penn'orth. They strolled on, peeling off the charred, crackling skins and munching the sweet insides.
There were toy shops and a Punch and Judy show. Rival printing presses tried to top each other's ballads celebrating the Frost Fair. Dogs barked at small boys sliding on a smooth patch of ice, and fiddlers sawed away while young men hopped and swung with their sweethearts on an improvised dancing stage.
"Fry your own sausages! Take 'em 'ome pipin' 'ot."
"Lapland mutton, roasted right 'ere on the river, shilling a slice!"
"Prick the garter! Try your skill and win a vallible prize!"
"Buy my brandy-balls!"
"Cut and a shave," shouted a barber, his chair set up in the open with the striped pole stuck in the ice. "Cut and a shave. Razors sharper'n icicles!"
Rosabelle stopped to glance over the wares of a bookstall, while Betsy admired the gaily painted swings next door. The attendants, their breath puffing out in clouds, pushed the gondolas higher and higher, while the girls seated inside with their swains squealed and giggled.
"Changed your mind?" Rosabelle asked.
"It does look like fun, but it'd be better if you've got a young man. No, let's find the donkeys."
"Over that way, I think."
As they turned right on the Grand Mall, which ran down the middle of the Thames from Blackfriars Bridge to London Bridge, Rosabelle glanced back down Freezeland Street. Beyond tents and booths, behind the wharves and warehouses of the City, the spires of churches rose, and over to the left, Paul's great dome towered high above the rest.
She would have liked to sketch the panorama. If the freeze held she could bring paper and pencil tomorrow, but it was too cold to sit still for long. Even if she escaped frostbitten toes, chilled fingers would be too clumsy to do the scene justice.
The very thought made her shiver. She was sure her nose must be red from the nip of the glacial air, and the chill of the ice was beginning to seep through the soles of her smart boots. Her velvet cloak was elegant, but even though she wore a spencer underneath, on top of her Kerseymere gown, Betsy's duffel was probably warmer. How horrified maman would be if she said she wanted a pelisse of the coarse woollen cloth!
"There they are." Betsy pointed to where a string of patient donkeys plodded across the ice towards a space marked with hoofprints and other unmistakable evidence of a less mentionable nature. "Aren't they sweet? I hope I can ride that one with the red and yellow ribbons, the one with a side-saddle. I wish I had a lump of sugar to feed it."
"Perhaps the stall next door will let us have some, that one with the 'Dibden, Pastrycook' sign. Look, they are selling hot chocolate, so they must have sugar. I'll tell them we shall buy chocolate after our ride, to warm us."
"Can we really? I'm ever so glad it was my turn to go with you today, Miss Ros!"
Rosabelle went up to the counter beneath the slapdash, hastily painted sign. On it were laid out trays of tarts and biscuits and gilt gingerbread shapes. From the back of the stall came the mouthwatering aroma of hot meat pies, mingling with the sweetness of the fragrant steam from the chocolate pot on its spirit lamp.
A young man with curly brown hair peeking from beneath his hat was serving a customer with a crisp, golden, hot apple turnover, redolent of cinnamon and cloves. He took the money and turned to Rosabelle.
"What can I do for you, madam?" he enquired, an appreciative light in his sparkling blue eyes.
Though she was not unaccustomed to admiration from the opposite sex, Rosabelle felt a blush rise in her cheeks. No doubt they matched her nose and her cloak, she thought ruefully. But there was nothing to take offence at in his merry gaze, so she smiled back.
"We would like hot chocolate after our donkey ride," she said, perhaps a trifle primly. "I wondered if you might let me have a lump of sugar or two now, to feed to the donkeys. Only if your master will not be angry," she added.
"Not he." The young man grinned, showing white, even teeth. "You want to bribe the beasts not to toss you, do you?"
"Oh!" Betsy's eyes widened in alarm. "Do they throw people off?"
"He's teasing, Betsy," Rosabelle assured her, glancing back at the stolid animals as they stopped in a circle to let their present riders dismount.
The pastrycook's assistant chuckled. "Better safe than sorry. If you were bucked off you might slide all the way to the open river and take a ducking, and that would be a great pity. Here you are, ladies." He handed each of the girls a piece of lump sugar.
Thanking him, they turned away just as a skinny youth with a tray suspended from his neck rushed up.
"More pies, Mr Rufus," he cried.
"Mr Rufus is a shocking saucy fellow," Betsy said severely. "Teasing indeed! Are you sure he was teasing, Miss Ros?"
"Would you prefer a wooden horse after all?"
"N-no. Oh, come quick, before someone gets my donkey." Her qualms forgotten, Betsy rushed to take possession of the steed with red and yellow bows in its tufted mane.
The donkey-boy took Rosabelle's fourpence and showed them how to offer the sugar on the flat of the hand. The soft lips of Rosabelle's green-ribboned mount whuffled across her palm, tickling. She jumped as the donkey behind it in line hee-hawed its envy.
Looking round, she saw that Mr Rufus had finished loading pies onto the tray and was watching her. He gave her a wave of encouragement.
She half raised her hand in response, then the donkey-boy came to help her up into the side-saddle. With no train to hide them, her ankles were exposed, but so were those of the other female riders. No one who knew her would see her, she told herself, nonetheless very conscious of Mr Rufus's vantage point nearby. Studiously she avoided looking that way.
"It's not so very high off the ground," Betsy said with a touch of anxiety, and she squeaked as her donkey set forth in leisurely pursuit of the tail of the one in front.
As Rosabelle's mount ambled conscientiously after its fellows, its warmth thawed her cold feet. The motion was soothing. She wondered whether riding a horse would be as pleasant; having lived all her life in London she had never learned. Horses were much taller, though, and apt to move much faster. Best be satisfied with the present enjoyable experience, she decided, and patted the patient donkey's neck.
They had a good tuppence-worth, going as far as Blackfriars Bridge before turning back. The great rounded arches of the bridge looked very odd from below, with no water rushing through. Like the water-stairs, they were guarded by boatmen exacting their toll of those who approached the fair on the ice from upstream.
The donkey-train returned towards its starting point. Rosabelle glanced across to the pastrycook's booth, half expecting to see the saucy young shopman watching her again. But Mr Rufus was busy serving customers, along with another youthful assistant who had joined him.
Rosabelle found herself ridiculously disappointed that he did not notice her approach. No doubt he had flirted with at least half a dozen pretty girls since her departure, she told herself. He was friendly by nature, and doubtless it was good for business.
The donkey-boy led his charges around into a circle and stopped. He came round to help the women dismount. Rosabelle tipped him a ha'penny and shook out her skirts as he moved on towards Betsy.
Impatient, Betsy slid down without waiting for his hand. As she landed on the ice, her feet shot out from under her and, with a squawk of alarm, she fell heavily.
"Betsy!" Rosabelle started forward to raise her. "Are you hurt?"
The girl scrambled cautiously to her knees. "I don't think so, 'cepting a bit bruised." With Rosabelle's hand beneath her elbow, she rose to her feet, then collapsed with a whimper. "Oh, Miss Ros, my ankle! It hurts so, I must've broke it." Tears trickled down her cheeks.
"Oh dear!" Rosabelle glanced round the crowd of bystanders which had quickly gathered, looking for a helpful face.
"You wants to stop it swelling," said a burly fellow in a frieze jacket. "Put ice on it!" He roared with laughter, and several others tittered.
The donkey-boy was growing annoyed at the interruption to his business. "You gotta move 'er, miss," he said roughly. "Come along, now, I'll give you an 'and to slide 'er out o' the way o' my beasts."
For want of anything better, Rosabelle was about to accept his offer, when Mr Rufus pushed through the circle.
"What's the trouble?" he asked, his face full of concern. "The young lady's hurt herself?"
"It's her ankle," Rosabelle explained. "I fear she has broken it."
"Very likely just a sprain," he said reassuringly, "but deuced painful all the same. Up you get, Miss Betsy, put your weight on me--that's right--and hop along, and we'll soon have you somewhere more comfortable."
Sniffling, Betsy made her painful way, leaning on his strong arm, towards the pastrycook's. Rosabelle picked up her muff, which she had dropped, and followed.
"How'd you know my name?" Betsy asked.
"I heard your mistress address you. I've a good memory for names, it's useful in my line of business. Customers like one to recall their names. And I never forget a pretty face." As he said this last, he turned his head to smile back at Rosabelle, apparently addressing the compliment to her.
Which was all very well, but she was clearly only one of many fated to clog his memory. Still, he was only a shop assistant, however charming. The galleries of female countenances adorning his mind were no concern of hers.