Authors: John Pilkington
N AN AFTERNOON
in October, Mistress Betsy Brand left the Duke’s Theatre alone and walked along Water Lane towards Fleet Street. She was in sober mood, which had nothing to do with the play in which she was appearing. Nor did it concern the new role she had been given, in a comedy by the playmaker Mr Shadwell. In fact it was not a professional matter at all: it concerned her father.
Betsy had received news the previous evening which weighed heavily upon her. To her surprise, her sister Mary, low in spirits, had appeared at her lodgings, the house of Dr Tom Catlin in Fire’s Reach Alley. The surprise was twofold: for one thing Betsy’s older sister, who had made a good marriage and was the mother of two healthy children, was one of the most cheerful women she knew. For another, Mary rarely visited her. Betsy, unmarried and a prominent
woman of the theatre
, had long been a cause of embarrassment to her family. The reason for her sister’s arrival, however, soon became clear: it seemed their father William Brand was in serious debt.
‘Mother’s beside herself,’ Mary had said, shaking her head. ‘Father’s past his sixtieth year now … we cannot see how he’ll pull himself out of this mire he’s fallen into.’
‘I do know how old he is, Mary,’ Betsy had replied. ‘And despite what you might think, I see him sometimes – when he consents to see
, that is.’ The two women were sitting in Tom Catlin’s parlour, the doctor having excused himself so that they might talk freely.
‘Well, you know his position is difficult,’ her sister had said. ‘He tries to keep up acquaintance with friends from happier times, yet many of them ignore him. While those he’s obliged to deal with mock him, thinking him a poor man of business …’ She bit her lip. ‘If only he’d been more prudent, before the Great Fire….’
‘Oh, flap-sauce!’ Betsy’s patience never lasted long in her sister’s company. ‘Father fell out with his superiors long before that – he was never a tactful man, was he? His losing a few documents during the Fire was all the excuse they needed to force him from his post.’
‘Betsy, how could you!’ Mary spoke as if she were reproving one of her children. ‘Father’s an honest man, who served the Crown faithfully—’
‘Indeed – too honest,’ Betsy retorted. ‘You live a comfortable life out at Chelsea,’ she went on. ‘Here in the town – and
at Court – different customs prevail. Guile is the most important asset a man can have nowadays – that and a droll wit, along with a lack of scruples. Father’s an innocent soul from a bygone age, Mary. He’s not moulded for the world of commerce. Now I think upon it, I’m not surprised he’s fallen behind with his creditors. Like his customers, they’ve probably cheated him for years.’
‘Sister!’ Mary gazed at her as if she were a stranger. ‘Great heavens, what has become of you?’
‘Oh, I know what you think,’ Betsy said. ‘But you shouldn’t believe all you hear about actresses—’
‘I don’t mean that! I know you’re not a Nell Gwyn, or a Moll Davis …’ Her sister sighed. ‘My dear, you seem to think so badly of everyone. One hears such lurid tales of the King and the Duke, and their libertine friends who patronize the theatres… is it they who’ve soured you?’
‘Soured me?’ Betsy was taken aback. ‘What … do you think I’ve become such a cynic?’
‘Well … perhaps not.’ Her sister put on a wan smile. ‘Look at
us – we seldom meet, yet here we are railing at each other as we did when we were girls. Yet we always kissed and made up in the end, didn’t we?’
‘We did,’ Betsy admitted. ‘So let’s put all this aside now and think of Father. Tell me plainly: how much does he owe?’
Mary hesitated, then, ‘As I understand it, his debts amount to about fifty pounds.’
It was a shock. And thinking of it now, as she emerged from Water Lane by St Bride’s, Betsy was plunged into gloom. Fifty pounds amounted to almost two years’ wages for an actress like herself. She’d mulled over the figure throughout the day, and knew it was an impossible sum. None of her friends had that sort of wealth, though she had refrained from saying so to her sister. Instead, when Mary took her leave with vague promises about calling again, Betsy had told her not to worry. She’d even mentioned rich acquaintances like Lord Caradoc, the Master of the Revels, whom she might approach – if not for a loan, then at least for advice. Yet she knew the outlook was bleak. And the thought of her ageing father being thrown into a debtor’s prison filled her with worry.
At Fleet Street she halted, assailed by the clop of hoofs and the noise of carts rumbling by. As she waited to cross, her thoughts turned again to Caradoc. The wily lord, whose
for the theatre was merely a diversion from his other interests, was the most important person Betsy knew. And though she was well aware that his attentions were less than honourable – she hadn’t forgotten his leery smile and his hand upon her knee that day when she’d sat in his coach – he had always been kind to her. When he’d promised to get her friend Jane Rowe’s rascally beau released from the Fleet Prison, he had been as good as his word. Musing on that now, Betsy felt a pang of unease: Lord Caradoc had performed the service, he said, as proof of his good will. In return, Betsy had all but agreed to his secret request: that she use her skills as an actress and turn
, in the service of her country.
Since then the best part of a year had passed. And though she had seen his lordship several times, he had not broached the subject again. For a while Betsy had felt ashamed for letting him think she would acquiesce so readily. Instead, only too eagerly, she’d allowed her work at the Duke’s Theatre to fill her days, and the matter had gone cold. Or so she thought – apart from those occasions when Caradoc had cause to visit Dorset Gardens, and she had found him gazing pointedly at her from a distance.
She shook herself: no, it wouldn’t do. She was an actress, who had risen by talent and hard work, from playing small parts to gaining an important role in the company’s new piece. What did she care, or even know, about politics? And even if the famous playmaker Mrs Behn had been a spy for a short time, as Lord Caradoc claimed, what was that to Betsy? Frowning, she stepped into the street.
‘Oi, Mistress Head-in-the-Clouds – watch your back!’
Startled, Betsy whirled round to find a brewer’s dray bearing down upon her, the fat driver shaking his whip. With a yelp she dodged the nearside horse, grabbed her skirts and gained the other side of Fleet Street – just in time.
watch it, you big tub of lard!’ she shouted back. ‘Or do you want a body under your wheels?’
The driver roared with laughter. ‘I wouldn’t say no to yours, my lamb!’ he cried. ‘But not under my wheels!’ He was still laughing as he drew away, urging his plodding horses towards the Fleet Bridge.
In spite of herself, Betsy felt a smile coming on. ‘Cods,’ she breathed. ‘Perhaps my sister’s fears are well founded after all … am I become as coarse as any woman of the streets?’
Drawing her bertha about her shoulders, she walked the short distance to Fetter Lane, turned in by St Dunstan’s and was soon nearing Catlin’s house in Fire’s Reach. But when she arrived at the door, she found someone blocking her way.
‘Live here, do you?’
The speaker was a big man in a rough serge coat. To Betsy’s alarm, he carried an oak truncheon.
‘I do,’ she replied, in her most imperious tone. ‘And who are you?’
‘John Dench, bailiff,’ came the reply. ‘And I’ve stood here long enough. I know there’s folk within – so tell ’em I’m not leaving until I’ve had satisfaction!’
‘Satisfaction?’ Betsy looked the man up and down. ‘If you mean you’re here on behalf of creditors to Dr Catlin, I fear you’ll be disappointed. He seldom returns home before nightfall, and sometimes long after—’
‘I said I know there’s folk within, and I meant it!’ Dench retorted. He levelled his truncheon at the window. ‘See – mark you that!’
Betsy looked, and her heart sank. Peg Brazier, Tom Catlin’s rebellious servant, was peering round the window frame. At once she ducked out of sight, but she was too late.
‘How much do you want?’ With a sigh, Betsy fumbled in her gown. ‘Or rather, what sum would persuade you to depart and return next week? No doubt circumstances will have changed by then, and my landlord will be able to settle his account.’
The appearance of Betsy’s purse placated Dench somewhat. ‘Well… I don’t know if I should,’ he muttered. ‘I’m charged by Kitts the bootmaker to recover the sum of four guineas. Anything less would be—’
‘Here’s a silver crown on account,’ Betsy said. ‘And another shilling perhaps, to compensate you for your trouble.’
She fixed the bailiff with her most brazen stare. It had quelled lesser men, and it did not fail now. With a glance up and down the street, Dench tucked his truncheon into his belt.
‘On account, then.’ He shook his head reluctantly, but the show was wasted on a professional like Betsy. ‘Kitts won’t like it, but if you say I can expect the rest next week then I’ll take your word, miss.’ He smiled knowingly – which was a mistake.
?’ Betsy stared at him. ‘Just who – or what, do you think I am?’
The bailiff’s smile faded. ‘Why, I didn’t think nothing—’
‘Yes you did!’ To her own surprise as well as Dench’s, Betsy’s temper had flared. ‘You thought I was the doctor’s kept woman – or even a trull. Well hear this, Mr Dench: I’m neither. I’m Mistress Brand of the Duke’s Theatre. And there are those I could call on, who’d send you back to Kitts the bootmaker with a sore head. Now – here’s your money!’
And she thrust the coin at him, so abruptly that the man flinched. For a moment he regarded Betsy as if she were a Bedlam inmate, before snatching it.
‘A pox on you, then!’ He glowered – but with a swish of her gown, Betsy swept past him and mounted the doorstep. In seconds she had lifted the latch and was disappearing into the house, whereupon Dench called out, ‘Wait – another shilling, you said!’
But all he got in return was a sound familiar to men of his calling: the slam of a door. Instinctively he raised his fist to hammer, then on second thoughts lowered it again.
In the house, Betsy and Peg waited breathlessly on the other side of the door. When at last they heard the thud of heavy boots moving away, both let out sighs of relief.
‘I daren’t open up to that one,’ Peg said, jerking her thumb. ‘He’s the hectoring sort – won’t leave until he’s got a result.’ She frowned. ‘What did you tell him?’
But Betsy started towards the stairs. ‘Will you bring hot water to my room, Peg?’ she said quietly. ‘I’d like to wash.’
Doctor Tom Catlin returned home late that evening, after Betsy had taken her supper in the kitchen. As was his frequent custom, he called his friend and lodger down to share a cup of sack with him. So there in the parlour, where she had sat with her sister the evening before, Betsy told him of her father’s
. And, tired though she was, after she was done she felt better. Then, most people who talked with Tom Catlin would
have said that. For a man, Betsy had always maintained, he was a good listener.
‘Sadly, good William Brand isn’t the only one to get himself into debt,’ he observed. They were seated by the fire, the doctor in waistcoat and shirt sleeves, Betsy in a plain nightgown. ‘Peg’s told me of your encounter with the bailiff …’ Embarrassed, he looked away. ‘I’ll deduct a crown from your rent.’
‘Please don’t concern yourself with that,’ Betsy said. She took a drink, then added, ‘My father isn’t the only man I know who thinks of his customers first and his profits last. When are you going to charge enough to cover your own costs?’
‘Come, Betsy – you know how poor many of my patients are,’ Catlin replied wearily. ‘What should I do when called to the bed of a sick man, or a woman in the pains of a difficult childbirth? Demand payment, before I lift a finger?’
‘Most of your fellow physicians would,’ Betsy said. ‘But then, we’ve trodden this ground before, have we not?’ She lowered her eyes, and gazed into the fire. No matter how straitened his
, Tom Catlin always had a good sea-coal fire burning.
‘I saw Mr Betterton today, in Covent Garden,’ the doctor said, to change the subject. ‘I gather you’re to take a prestigious role at the Duke’s.’
‘I’m playing Lady Waspish,’ Betsy told him, with a wry smile. ‘And I hope you’ll make no comment on that.’
Catlin maintained his sober demeanour. ‘Would I dare?’ Then, almost as an afterthought, he added, ‘I may as well tell you my news too, Betsy: it’s possible I might have to sell this house.’
Betsy turned sharply – but at once there came a loud clang from beyond the door. Catlin looked round.
A muffled oath was his answer. Getting to his feet, he strode to the door and flung it wide – to reveal Peg on her hands and knees, dabbing at the floor with a cloth.
‘It’s naught to fret about,’ she muttered, peering up at him. ‘I was bringing a jug of slops down, and—’
‘Save your excuses!’ To Betsy’s surprise as well as Peg’s, Catlin was angry for once. ‘You were listening again!’ He raised his hands helplessly, then let them fall. ‘So, you’ve heard the worst – am I correct?’
But the expression on Peg’s face was all the reply he needed. With a stifled oath of his own, her master turned away. Looking forlorn, Peg got up and stepped into the room. The doctor had returned to his chair, from where he looked at each of them in turn.
‘I hadn’t meant to announce it just yet – and certainly not in such precipitate fashion,’ he said, calming himself. ‘But now that you both know …’ He gestured to a pile of papers on his bureau. The stack of unpaid bills was such a feature of the room that Betsy rarely noticed it, as a rule. Though now that she looked, it seemed to have grown taller of late.
‘I won’t mince words,’ Catlin said. ‘In brief, I’m a pauper. Though in case you think I’ve turned spendthrift that payment due to Kitts that occasioned the visit from our Mr Dench, wasn’t for boots: it was for leather straps, to confine a patient with the falling sickness. That and a new instrument case …’ He gave a shrug. ‘What does it matter? He’s just one of many who’ve grown tired of waiting for their money.
, butchers, the wig-maker …’ He eyed Peg. ‘I’ve no need to tell you, have I?’