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Authors: The Actressand the Rake

Carola Dunn

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THE ACTRESS AND THE RAKE

or

Sir Barnabas’s Will

 

Carola Dunn

 

Chapter 1

 

“Me bloody tights is split again, dearie.”

Bess Rigby bounced into the dingy wardrobe room where Nerissa’s sewing table was squeezed in between racks and shelves of clothes. A gust of cheap violet scent joined the mingled odours of grease-paint and sweat--many of the costumes were too flimsy to be washed and the best Nerissa could do was to air them well after each wearing.

“Split again!” she groaned.

“‘Fraid so. Good job I didn’t turn me back on the audience last night.” Scarlet hose dangled limply from her plump hand. In her present rôle, as Rosalind, Bess’s legs still drew whistles from the gallery but her hips were gradually succumbing to a liking for sweetmeats. Her present protector, a wealthy York grocer, was more generous with his wares than with the rubies Bess craved.

“I’ll see what I can do,” said Nerissa with a sigh as she took the tights, “but there is not much left to darn.”

Lucian Gossett’s handsome face and carefully arranged blond curls appeared over Bess’s shoulder. “Finished my kilt yet, darling?”

“Not quite.” Nerissa twined an errant strand of straight, mouse-brown hair, escaped from her braids, around her finger. If only he meant it when he called her darling, she mourned, she’d stay up all night stitching and ironing those endless pleats for him. “I’ll have it ready for opening night, I promise.”

“But, darling, I simply must have it for the dress rehearsal.”

“Afraid you’ll get your sword tangled up in your skirts?” Bess jeered. “That’d be a laugh, Macduff losing the fight for a change.”

“One does need to practise, darling,” Lucian snapped.

“Mr Wingate don’t need practice,” she needled him. “Borrow his kilt.”

“Papa has played Macbeth a dozen times,” Nerissa pointed out pacifically. “One way or another he always manages to lose the fight as Shakespeare intended. I’ll see what I can do, Lucian.”

The actor went off looking sulky.

“I’ll be damned if he don’t snitch to Mr Fothergill,” said Bess.

“He wouldn’t! I didn’t mean I shan’t have it done in time, at least if I don’t have to darn your tights. They’ll only split again tonight. Mr Fothergill is simply going to have to lay out a few shillings for a new pair. After all, we’ve had good houses all week.”


As You Like It
always goes down well and Rosalind’s a treat to play, ‘specially with your dad as Orlando. It’s a good thing for me your ma don’t do breeches parts. Still, she’s got Lady McB. next week to make up. But let’s face it, love, the York Playhouse just ain’t got the Theatre Royal’s prestige.”

“Our company is quite as good as theirs. If only we could scrape together enough money for new seats and some gilt paint!”

“Witches on stage!” Young Jem, perennial page, third murderer, apprentice, messenger, et cetera, scurried along the narrow, draughty corridor summoning the cast for the beginning of the rehearsal. He popped his head around Bess’s ample form. “Nerissa, Mr Fothergill wants to know is Macduff’s kilt going to be ready for the dress rehearsal?”

“Tell Mr Fothergill yes, if he’ll buy new tights for Rosalind so I don’t have to darn them again.”

“Better get a bigger size next time.” Grinning, Jem pinched Bess’s posterior. She squealed and slapped his hand. “Hey, I nearly forgot. This came for you.” He delved into his pocket, produced a crumpled, grubby piece of paper, and handed it to Nerissa.

“If it’s another invitation from Sir George Clemence, Mama will be on her high ropes. She told him in no uncertain terms that I don’t dine alone with gentlemen.”

His grin broadened. “I heard her. Shouldn’t think it’s Ol’ Clammy-Hands, though. It wasn’t delivered by a groom; the postman brought it. Come on, Bess, the blasted heath awaits.”

“That’s Miss Rigby to you, brat.”

As the actress left, Nerissa stopped the boy. “Jem, I’ve let out your court breeches. Can you try them on now? You’re not on for a while, are you?”

“No, but I want to watch your ma do the weird sister bit. Mrs Wingate’s a hell of a good witch. I reckon our Bess is getting too broad in the beam to play a withered crone.” He eyed Nerissa’s figure judiciously. “You’d make a good ‘un, if you could act worth a damn.”

“But I can’t,” said Nerissa as he ran off. She was rarely asked to play even a speechless court lady or shepherdess, for stage fright froze her so completely she might be a pillar or a tree rather than a living, breathing human being.

If only she could play Juliet to Lucian’s Romeo, perhaps he’d see her in a different light.

Sighing, she turned over the letter in her hand and smoothed it flat. The bright September sunlight pouring in at the small window sparkled on tinsel and spangles and cheap paste gems as she peered at the direction. The neat, precise hand, half obscured by a fluffy smear of toffee from Jem’s pocket, was quite unlike Sir George’s scrawl.

She couldn’t remember ever receiving a real letter before, only
billets doux
from gentlemen who assumed that any female associated with the theatre must be a lightskirt. Those she was herself unable to dissuade, Mama generally dealt with quite satisfactorily. Anthea Wingate was, after all, accustomed to regal rôles. The more persistent pursuers were confronted by Papa in one of his sword-bearing costumes. He had only to loosen the sword in its scabbard to establish his daughter’s respectability beyond a doubt.

With her sewing scissors Nerissa pried open the seal. Her first reading of the letter left her so incredulous she had to go back and read it again from the beginning. Then, blue-striped dimity skirts gathered in one hand, the letter waving wildly in the other, she dashed along the corridor towards the stage, crying, “Mama! Mama!”

A lifetime of training slowed and hushed her as she reached the wings. On the stage, her father and Banquo approached the three witches. Of the three only Mrs Wingate managed, without rags and makeup, to give the impression of a “secret, black and midnight hag” as they danced widdershins about an imaginary fire. Tall and slender like her daughter, her dark hair untouched by grey, she seemed to have shrunk into decrepit, tottery, malevolent old age.

“Stop swinging your hips, Miss Rigby,” called Mr Fothergill from the auditorium. “That’s not the sort of lure you’re casting for Macbeth.”

Bess gave Mr Wingate a saucy wink. Everyone laughed, and Nerissa took advantage of the interruption to step onto the stage. She was too impatient to wait. Besides, her news might affect everyone there and it wasn’t as if her mother made any secret of her birth, though nor did she flaunt it.

“Mama, Papa, I have a letter from my grandfather’s lawyer!”

“From Sir Barnabas?” her father exclaimed.

“From his lawyer,” she reiterated as the entire company flocked around her.

“We don’t want anything to do with the old dastard,” said Mr Wingate adamantly. “He cast off your mother without a groat when she married me and it’s too late for him to repent now.”

Mrs Wingate, restored miraculously to grace and dignity, laid her hand on her husband’s arm. “Wait, Frederick. Let’s hear what Father wants. We may reject his interfering with ourselves, but if he means to do something for Nerissa...”

“It seems he’s dead, Mama.”

“Well, I for one cannot pretend to be sorry,” Mr Wingate said. “I beg your pardon, Anthea, but your father never had any claim on my regard.”

His wife sighed. “I am only sorry for his own sake that he did not attempt a reconciliation sooner. Nerissa, my love, what has the lawyer to say?”

“Mr Harwood writes that if I attend the reading of Sir Barnabas’s last Will and Testament, I shall hear something very much to my advantage.”

“Very much!” said Bess. Jem whistled and Lucian regarded Nerissa with a new interest.

“Mr Harwood says you must attend the reading?” asked Mrs Wingate sharply. “Where is it to be?”

“At Addlescombe, Mama.”

“He expects you to travel all the way to Dorset?” her father demanded, incredulous.

“The Will demands it, and prohibits his giving further details until then. If I do not go, I shall hear nothing more. Surely Sir Barnabas would not insist if I am only to inherit a few guineas, or a small keepsake?”

“Oh yes he would, the old curmudgeon!” said Mr Wingate. “I don’t trust him an inch, live or dead.”

“But I must go, Papa! Suppose the bequest is enough to buy new seats and repaint the Playhouse? I cannot bear to lose the chance.”

“Suppose it’s a miniature of Sir Barnabas to remember him by,” her father retorted. “I daresay it would cost all of twenty pounds to send you, even with an outside seat on the stage, what with a night at a London inn and a little extra for emergencies.”

“Emergencies!” Mrs Wingate exclaimed in dismay.

“Yes, emergencies, Anthea. I cannot allow my daughter to travel so far alone.”

Quite apart from the possible inheritance, Nerissa saw her chance of adventure escaping her, her chance of a few days respite from the dreary round of stitching and pressing. “Let me go, Papa,” she cried. “I shan’t speak to strangers, or... or do anything else foolish. I shall be quite safe. Mama, surely you don’t wish to reject Grandfather’s peace offering?”

Her mother’s regretful look showed her opposition was weakening.

“I might as well throw twenty pounds in the fire as trust to Sir Barnabas’s nonexistent benevolence,” Mr Wingate grumbled, running his hand through his dark hair in a theatrical gesture intended to portray harassment without disarranging a single lock.

“We’ll all dub up,” Bess suggested eagerly, fumbling in her pocket. “It’ll be like risking a bit on the prancers. Here, dearie, here’s half a yellow boy to start with. You deserve a bit of a holiday, anyways, even if there ain’t no more comes of it.”

“I’ll put in five guineas,” said the tightfisted Mr Fothergill to Nerissa’s astonishment, adding with a reckless air, “Nothing venture, nothing gain!”

Following their example, the rest of the company produced half-crowns and sixpences. Even Jem donated a sticky penny, carefully picking off the fluff before he added it to the hoard. Their generosity brought Nerissa near to tears.

“Thank you all,” she stammered. “Even if I don’t inherit a fortune, I shall pay you all back somehow.”

Lucian scowled as he handed over two silver shillings with obvious reluctance. “What about my kilt, damn it?” he complained.

“The Will is not to be read till the first of October,” said Nerissa, wistfully wishing his ill-humour stemmed from the prospect of losing her company, not her skills. “I’ll finish your kilt before I leave.”

“No good will come of this,” said her father gloomily.

“I’m the witch, Frederick,” Mrs Wingate admonished him. “Leave the prophesying to me. Nerissa is a sensible girl, and if nothing else, thanks to the generosity of our friends she will see a little of the world.”

“Then that’s settled,” said Mr Fothergill, and clapped his hands. “Back to work, if you please, ladies and gentlemen. We’ll start from the beginning of Scene 3, and please try, Miss Rigby, to remember that you are tempting Macbeth to a kingdom, not to your bed.”

* * * *

“You can’t just kick me out of your bed like a slut you picked up in the street!” screeched Dorabel. “I’m an actress, I am, not a common harlot.” Her eyes glittered with rage between heavily blackened lashes.

Half the crowd in the Covent Garden Green Room turned to stare, but Miles said coolly enough, “I’m sorry, Dolly, it can’t be helped. I had reverses at the Cocoa Tree last night and I can’t afford to keep both of you in the style you deserve.”

“So ‘e’s chose me,” Charmaine crowed, flaunting her splendid, half-clad bosom at her rival and tossing her improbably red curls. “‘E don’t fancy you no more. You can go ‘ang yerself, yer old bag.”

“I’ll be damned if I don’t see you hanged first, bitch!”

“Bitch yerself!” Charmaine flung herself with clawed fingers at Dorabel, ripping her exiguous lime-green satin bodice.

Dorabel retaliated, fingernails aimed at Charmaine’s rouged cheeks. Miles grabbed her around the waist from behind.

“Ouch!” he yelped as a flailing elbow caught him in the ribs. “Ladies, please!”

To his relief, Lord Thorpe had Charmaine firmly by the wrists. “I must say, Courtenay,” the viscount drawled, “life in your vicinity has never a dull moment.”

“My aim must ever be to entertain my friends,” said Miles ironically. “Dolly, I told you from the first that I live by my wits and my pockets are often to let. Be a good girl, let’s agree to part amicably.”

“What’s that thieving whore got that I don’t?” Dorabel whined.

“Lemme kill ‘er!” shrilled Charmaine.

“Oh, to the devil with both of you!” Disgusted, Miles released his hold and turned away. “Go ahead and kill each other, for all I care. There are other fish in the sea.”

He sauntered off, relaxed, yet instantly ready to swing round to intervene if the slightest sound suggested the two actresses were really tearing each other limb from limb.

BOOK: Carola Dunn
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