Authors: Simon Hawke
Tags: #Fiction, #Mystery & Detective, #Traditional British
To my wife, Deborah Who puts up with a lot
Much Ado About Murder
Shakespeare and Smythe Book 3
IT WAS A QUIET NIGHT in the taproom of the Toad and Badger as Tuck Smythe sat down to a simple supper of dark oat bread, ale, and pottage. A quiet night at the Toad and Badger tavern, however, did not necessarily mean the night was quiet in any generally accepted meaning of the phrase. It simply meant that no crockery was being hurled, no furniture was being overturned, and no skulls were being broken. (Admittedly, broken skulls did not occur as frequently as broken furniture and crockery, largely because players, as a rule, had less of a tendency toward violence than histrionics.) Smythe knew that the occasional broken bone or two was not altogether out of the question, but then such incidents did not often involve actors, who usually knew well enough to make a timely exit to the wings whenever the action center stage became a bit unruly.
Despite the general tumult over which the ursine Courtney Stackpole presided as the innkeeper, Smythe took comfort in the fact that the Toad and Badger was not really the sort of tavern where blood could flow as freely as small beer. Those sorts of places could more readily be found in Southwark or Whitechapel, where seamen from the trading ships and mercenaries from the foreign wars often brawled with the weatherbeaten rivermen and tough drovers from the Midlands. In such places, on any given night, blades could be drawn as readily as ale. The Toad and Badger, fortunately, was not that sort of tavern. It was rowdy and boisetrous, to be sure, but for all that, it was more loud than lethal and its charm lay primarily in the eccentricities of its patrons, most of whom were simple tradesmen and entertainers.
On this particular occasion, the atmosphere within the tavern was unusually subdued, in large part because the fortunes of the Queen's Men were lately in decline. The previous summer, they had gone out on tour throughout the English countryside, but their performances had not brought in nearly as much as they had hoped. The harvests had been poor for two years running, and while people in the countryside were generally starved for entertainment, many of them were also quite literally starving and could scarcely afford even the very reasonable price of admission to a play.
In many villages where they had stopped, rather than set up in the courtyard of a local inn, as was their custom, the Queen's Men had erected their stage out in a village square, then played for free to gain an audience. Afterwards, they would simply pass the hat. All too often, unfortunately, they had found that the number of people in their audience had well outnumbered the few coins that they had left behind.
To add insult to their injury, there were numerous bands of cozeners, vagabonds, and sharpers traveling the countryside of late, posing as legitimate companies of players. They would herald their arrival in a town with a fanfare of cornets and sackbuts, then with dramatic gestures, posturings, and declamations, the imposters would announce themselves as "the famed and legendary Queen's Men," or "the illustrious and acclaimed Lord Admiral's Men," or "the Earl of Leicester's Own Grand Company of Players," when, in fact, they had no legitimate noble patron whatsoever and thus possessed no right under the law to perform anywhere as players. Nevertheless, that did not stop scores of enterprising scoundrels from banding together in companies, stealing some wagons and some horses, then dressing up in motley and passing themselves off as legitimate players out on tour from London.
These rogues would come into a country town and stage some sorry travesty of a production they had cobbled together from bits and pieces filched from various plays that they had seen in London or, worse still, put on a play that they had stolen in its entirety by attending several performances en masse and committing different parts to memory. Much of the time, a play that was stolen in this manner resulted in a production that was a hopeless mish-mosh of misremembered lines and markedly inferior performances, which would have been bad enough, thought Smythe, if fraud were the only crime being perpetrated. Unfortunately, no sooner would these imposters leave a town that they had visited than numerous thefts and other crimes would be discovered, leaving little doubt as to the culprits.
Needless to say, the victims of these roving, thieving bands were not very well disposed toward legitimate companies of players who came to visit afterward. The Queen's Men had been driven from three villages they came to on their tour and Smythe still had some bruises left from being pelted with sticks and stones hurled by the angry townspeople at their last stop.
At least London's critics did not hurl anything more hazardous than a few well-turned epithets.
When the company had finally come home to London, they quickly discovered that things there were not much better. The playhouses were all closed down, in part because of plague, and in part because of rioting apprentices who had taken to roaming the streets of the city in large gangs and getting into violent, bloody battles with their rivals on the slightest provocation. There had been numerous complaints of damage done to property by these roving bands of hooligans, not to mention damage done to life and limb, as well. Smythe could not see what the players had to do with it. As he saw it, the blame lay with the guildsmen to whom these roaring boys had been apprenticed. They clearly failed to exercise the proper amount of supervision with their charges and allowed the boys too much free time. But rather than place the blame where it belonged, the authorities had apparently decided that any place where large numbers of citizens could gather was a potential breeding ground for violence, and so the playhouses had all been closed down ‘til further notice.
Smythe thought that it was terribly unfair to penalize the players by denying them the ability to make their living, even though they were entirely innocent of any wrongdoing… however, there was nothing they could do about it. Between their unsuccessful tour and the playhouses being closed, most of the Queen's Men were now dead broke. They had lost several members who had left the company to pursue other work, and those with any money left would soon be penniless themselves from sharing the little they had with their less fortunate comrades. Even the meanest of them was not above standing a fellow to a meal or a drink. Adversity seemed to bring out the best in them, Smythe thought. The players took care of their own.
He recalled the way his father had railed against them when he first found out about his son's dream of joining a company of players. "
" Symington Smythe the elder had exclaimed, his voice dripping with scorn as he lifted his chin and gave an elaborate sniff of disdain. "Naught but a frivolous, immoral lot of dirty scoundrels, every last man jack of them! Degenerate and drunken wastrels, all of them, a foul and pestilential pox upon society! No son of
shall ever be a player! Mark me well, boy, I shall strip the hide right off your back afore I allow you to disgrace the family name in such a manner!"
Well, Smythe thought wryly, as things turned out, his hide was still intact, which was certainly more than he could say for his father's fortune or good name. The old fool had squandered all his money in his vainglorious attempts to gain a knighthood. Now he had little left to show for all his efforts save for his precious escutcheon, which he had bribed and cozened the College of Heralds into granting him, thinking that once he was a proper gentleman, a knighthood would soon be within his grasp. Alas, Symington Smythe II's lofty ambition had overreached him and his dreams had fallen into dust. He had only narrowly avoided debtor's prison and was now living mainly on his younger brother's charity.
Meanwhile, Symington Smythe III took satisfaction in the knowledge that he was realizing his own dreams. He had left home for London, where he had found and joined a company of players, and though his current state of fortune was not much better than his father's, at least he was living the life that he had chosen for himself. "Life," as his Uncle Thomas used to say, "is much too short to be lived for someone else. Go and live it as you like it."
Smythe often missed his Uncle Thomas, who had always been more of a father to him than his own father had been. Thomas Smythe had never begrudged his older brother his inheritance. He was a simple, unassuming man who lived his own life and was content to make his own way as a farrier and blacksmith in their small village. He had liked nothing better than standing at his forge, his powerful arms corded with muscle, his bare chest, covered only with his well-worn leather apron, glistening with a sheen of sweat as he labored at his favorite task, the careful crafting of a blade. Though he had shod more horses and forged more iron tools than weapons, Thomas Smythe could also forge a blade that could rival the finest fighting steel from Toledo. No less a connoisseur of weapons than Sir William Worley, master of the Sea Hawks and courtier to the queen, had admired his work.
And if it wasn't for his uncle's tutelage, Smythe knew all too well that he would have gone hungry on this night. He had been completely broke, but had lucidly managed to make some money earlier in the day by shoeing horses and helping out a local smith named Liam Bailey, who had found himself suddenly short-handed when his young apprentice became caught up in a street brawl and had his head busted for his trouble.
"Damned bloody foolishness, if ye ask me," the big old smith had sworn, running his rough and liver-spotted hand over his spare and close-cropped, grizzled hair. "Dunno what in blazes is the matter wi' young people these days. Why, in my day, a young man counted 'imself lucky to 'ave someone take 'im on an' teach 'im a good trade. But, blind me, these young scalawags today 'aven't got the sense God gave a goose! Not like you, now. I can see straight off that someone's taught ye well. Ye know yer way around a forge an' ye 'ave a way wi' horses, lad. Ye 'ave a fine, thick, brawny arm an' a big, strong chest, all the makin's of a proper smith. Ye know, ye could do worse than to throw in yer lot wi' me."
Smythe had thanked him warmly and explained that he already had a job with the Queen's Men, quickly adding that he was very grateful for the work because the playhouses had been closed and times were lean, but that he hoped to be on the boards once again before too long.