Read The Mad Courtesan Online

Authors: Edward Marston

Tags: #_rt_yes, #_MARKED, #tpl, #Mystery & Detective, #Historical, #Great Britain - History - Elizabeth; 1558-1603, #Mystery, #Theater, #Theatrical Companies, #Fiction

The Mad Courtesan

BOOK: The Mad Courtesan
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To the Right Honourable and Truly Noble

BARBARA

Countess of Scottsdale

 

I here offer your Ladyship the ripest of my studies, which, though it carry vice in its title, seeks out your gracious shelter on account of its virtues. Accept these writings from a questing quill in the Old World and place them beside a poisoned pen in the New. And so, till some more worthy work flow from my hand, that may better express me, and more fit the gravity of your maturest inclination, I rest,

 

Yours at all parts most truly affected,

 

EDW. MARSTON

 

I am a profest Courtezan

That lives by people’s Sinne.

With half a dozen Punckes I keepe

I have greate coming-in

– SAMUEL ROWLANDS:
The Courtezan
(1590)

 

If, as their ends, their fruits were so the same,

Bawdry and usury were one kind of game.

– BEN JONSON:
On Bawds and Usurers

N
icholas Bracewell ducked in the nick of time and the rapier whistled above his head to describe a vicious semicircle of thwarted rage. Backing away and drawing his own weapon, he had to repulse a violent attack as his adversary closed on him at once and scythed away with murder in his heart. Here was no occasion for the finer points of swordplay. It was a wild, undisciplined tavern brawl that called for strength of arm and speed of brain. Nicholas demonstrated both in equal measure as he parried further blows, flicked his wrist to expose his target then went down on one knee as he thrust his blade straight and true into his enemy’s side. There was a howl of fury mingled with disbelief as the man staggered backwards, then, dropping his sword, clasping his fatal wound with both hands and emitting one last roar of anger, he fell to the ground in a writhing heap.

The applause was paltry but well earned and Nicholas
acknowledged it with a modest smile. Though he was only the book holder with Westfield’s Men, he was an expert in the mounting of stage fights and he had proved that expertise once again. The watching actors and apprentices gave him due reward with their eager palms while Nicholas helped up the now grinning corpse of Sebastian Carrick and dusted him off with a few considerate smacks. The two men were standing on the makeshift stage in the yard of the Queen’s Head in Gracechurch Street, the inn where the company performed most of its work and attested its claim to be considered the leading theatrical troupe in London. One of the main reasons for its pre-eminence was the crucial influence of Nicholas Bracewell behind the scenes. He was the sheet anchor to a vessel that sailed through an almost permanent tempest and he had saved untold mariners from a gruesome death below the mountainous waves.

Sebastian Carrick was the first to offer compliments.

‘You excel yourself, Nick,’ he said.

‘It is easy when you have the trick of it.’

‘But a devilish task to learn that trick. You can instruct us all in the art of fencing, seasoned though we be. I have never before encountered such a shrewd teacher as Master Nicholas Bracewell.’

‘You are an apt pupil, Sebastian.’

‘Aye,’ said the actor with a grin. ‘A grateful one, too. I had rather be killed by you than by any man in London!’

General laughter broke out among the spectators. Sword fights were an integral part of theatre and they had to be choreographed with sufficient verve and realism to
convince an audience that would press very close to the stage. The death of Sebastian Carrick had been so well rehearsed that even those who had witnessed the sequence many times were momentarily fearful that they had indeed lost a friend and colleague. When Nicholas thrust home his blade, however, it simply passed between the side and the arm of his quarry but with a timing and accuracy born of years of experience.

Carrick gave the book holder a confiding nudge.

‘I doubt that Owen will fight as fairly as you, Nick.’

‘He is an able swordsman.’

‘Able enough to cut me down for good and all.’

‘You do him wrong, Sebastian.’

‘Marry, that’s
his
complaint.’

‘Then must you settle your account with him.’

‘I would be rid of this turbulent Welshman.’

‘Soothe his turbulence.’

Owen Elias, the subject of their exchange, stood no more than a dozen yards away and glowered at his fellow actor. He was a stocky man in his thirties with broad shoulders above a barrel chest. His face was striking rather than handsome with smouldering eyes that were ignited by some dark, Celtic passion. He had good reason to resent Sebastian Carrick. Not only had the latter borrowed money from him which he was refusing to repay, he had committed what was, in the Welshman’s view, the cardinal sin. He was preferred as an actor. By virtue of his grace, charm and poise, Carrick was repeatedly cast in better roles than those offered to Elias and it rankled. Turbulence ensued.

It was time for the rehearsal to begin properly and Nicholas Bracewell took control with accustomed firmness. The stage was set for the first scene, the actors withdrew to the tiring-house, the musicians took up their positions in the gallery above. Westfield’s Men steadied themselves for yet another performance of
Vincentio’s Revenge
, one of the stock plays in their extensive repertoire, a brooding tragedy that was shot through with violence. Early in Act Three, the lascivious courtier, Lodovico – as played by Sebastian Carrick – would be killed in a tavern brawl by Owen Elias in a role that was not even dignified by a name. Lodovico might appear to die but it was The Stranger who suffered the more serious professional wound.

Even amid the happy turmoil of preparation, Nicholas spared a thought for the tribulations of Owen Elias. As an actor, the Welshman was incomparably better than Sebastian Carrick but the latter had physical attributes which made him more appealing and personal qualities that made him more acceptable. Tall, slim and dashing, he had the lazy confidence of a philanderer allied to an air of almost aristocratic refinement. Owen Elias was too ebullient and wilful. He was altogether too combative in urging his right to promotion within the company and he thus reviled the easy tact and plausibility which gained advantage for his rival. Nor could he forget or forgive the effortless skill with which Carrick had persuaded him to open his purse and part with money that he could ill afford to lose.
Vincentio’s
Revenge
was nothing beside the dire retribution that Owen Elias contemplated.

‘Stand by!’

The command from Nicholas Bracewell stilled the murmur and put every man on the alert. On a signal from the book holder, Peter Digby and his musicians coaxed solemn sounds from their instruments as the Prologue entered in a black cloak to introduce the play. For the next two hours, the company reacquainted themselves with
Vincentio’s Revenge
and – even though their audience consisted of no more than some curious horses and some gaping ostlers – they gave the work their full concentration. No matter how many times they had performed a piece, they never took it for granted. A play was like a sword. It needed to be polished and sharpened each time before use. Audiences detested the sight of rust and the feel of a blunt edge. Westfield’s Men always kept their weaponry in good order.

When the rehearsal was over, the actors drifted off into the inn itself to take refreshment before the paying public began to arrive. Nicholas had much to do before he could join them, supervising the stagekeepers as they struck the set for Act Five prior to sweeping the boards and strewing them with rushes, making sure that costumes and properties were in their appointed places, chiding the musicians for being noticeably late with their dirge in Act Four and attending to the ever-widening responsibilities of his job. Because it had been, for the most part, a good rehearsal, he went about his work with the quiet satisfaction of one who had made a substantial contribution to the successes of the morning. He was especially pleased with the tavern
brawl. Owen Elias and Sebastian Carrick had never fought with such controlled venom. It had been a highlight of the drama.

Ensconced in the taproom, The Stranger was keen to re-enact the scene with his smiling Lodovico.

‘Give me the money, you viper!’

‘Would that I could, dear friend!’ sighed Carrick.

‘Friend, am I not: dear was I never!’

‘I count you among my closest fellows.’

‘Count out some coins instead, Sebastian.’

‘You will be paid in good time.’

‘I urge the reckoning now.’

‘You do so in vain, Owen,’ said the other with a shrug. ‘Truly, I have no money, sir. I have borrowed afresh to buy myself food and drink.’

‘To borrow and not repay is to steal.’

‘Be patient but a little longer.’

‘Give me my money, Sebastian.’

‘As soon as I may.’

‘Now!’ yelled the fiery Welshman, grabbing him with both hands. ‘Pay me forthwith or – by St David! – I’ll tear you limb from limb and feed you to the inn-yard dogs.’

Sebastian Carrick tried to defuse the situation with an amiable laugh but it only enraged his attacker even more. Rising to his feet, Owen Elias hauled him up from his bench and flung him across the room with sudden power. Fury and envy surged up and conjoined in the Welshman’s breast to send him hurtling after his honey-tongued colleague in order to belabour him unmercifully. Before he could even
land the first punch, however, he was drenched from head to toe by a few gallons of cold, brackish water from one of the wooden fire buckets. Nicholas Bracewell had arrived in time to see the quarrel and to dampen it down before it got out of hand. Sebastian Carrick grinned with relief but Owen Elias only glowered as the whole taproom filled with derisive laughter. Chafed but chastened, he did not resist when the book holder hurried both him and his fellow out into the yard. Nicholas did not mince his words and his soft West Country vowels were hardened into a curt threat.

‘Do you seek dismissal from the company, sirs?’

‘Indeed not,’ said Elias.

‘Nothing would grieve us more,’ said Carrick.

‘Brawling will not be tolerated,’ emphasised Nicholas with a warning finger. ‘We are only here at the Queen’s Head on sufferance and we must give our nagging landlord no more excuse to send us hence. Save your argument for some private place or, better still, resolve it here and part as friends. Would you have Westfield’s Men evicted over some petty difference between you?’

‘It is not petty,’ said Elias, still dripping wet. ‘It is a very serious matter and I will be answered.’

Carrick smirked. ‘That bucket was an eloquent reply.’

‘You owe me six shillings, sir!’

‘First, do but loan me a further five.’

‘Scurvy rogue!’

‘Peace, peace!’ ordered Nicholas. ‘Raised voices solve nothing. Let’s hear this out calmly.’ He turned to Carrick. ‘Tell your tale first, Sebastian.’

‘But
I
am the injured party!’ wailed Elias.

‘Your turn will come,’ said Nicholas, quelling him with a glance. ‘Your temper needs more time to cool.’

The Welshman knew better than to argue with the book holder. A big, broad-shouldered man with a muscular strength beneath his affable manner, Nicholas could assert himself if the need arose. His fair hair and full beard danced gently in the wind but his stern eyes kept Owen Elias subdued as the facts of the case were laid out. Sebastian Carrick made light of the whole business, promising that the debt would soon be paid and apologising for any harm he had unwittingly inflicted on his fellow. Elias took several deep breaths before he trusted himself to words again but they came out in a remarkably measured and reasonable way. When both pleas had been voiced, the actors waited on Nicholas Bracewell to pronounce judgement.

‘You are both in the wrong,’ he said. ‘Sebastian, you should have repaid this money long since. Owen, you should not have provoked a brawl to gain your purpose. Is that much agreed between us?’ The actors nodded. ‘Then let us find a way out of this dilemma. A creditor wants something that a debtor does not possess.’

‘You have hit on the problem, Nick,’ said Carrick with a nonchalant shrug. ‘My purse is quite empty.’

‘It is
always
empty!’ challenged Elias.

‘A man must live, sweet sir.’

‘Live, yes, but not prey upon his fellows!’

‘Pleasure comes at a price.’

‘Then have it at your own expense and not mine.’

Nicholas interceded. ‘Hear my device. It may suit the both of you in equal part. Sebastian has no money until I pay his wage at the end of the week. Master your pain and indignation until then, Owen, and I will save one shilling of that wage for you.’

‘It is not enough,’ said Elias.

‘It is far too much!’ exclaimed Carrick.

But Nicholas stuck by his decision and – though neither man was pleased – both came to accept the compromise. Owen Elias realised that payment by instalments was better than nothing at all and he took comfort from the fact that it was Sebastian Carrick who had protested most. Evasion of his creditors was an article of faith with the latter. The only thing he ever willingly repaid was a debt of honour incurred at the gaming table. Money that was charmed from the purses of colleagues was his to keep. Friends were fair game.

He sighed. ‘It is a grisly resolution, Nick, but I will abide by it. Here is my hand on it.’ Owen Elias shook the proffered hand. ‘Well, now that matter is done, I must away to borrow afresh or I will dwindle into complete poverty!’

Sebastian Carrick gave a mock bow then sauntered back into the taproom with an amused resignation. His attitude produced more sparks from Owen Elias.

‘Look at him, Nick! Do but look at the saucy knave!’

‘The dispute is settled, Owen. Be content.’

‘He is a vile robber!’

‘Your money will be restored.’

‘It is my reputation that he is stealing,’ protested the
other. ‘
I
am the finer actor yet
he
filches the finer parts.
I
have laboured to establish myself with Westfield’s Men yet this upstart displaces me within a few months. It is not just, it is not kind, it is not bearable.’ He extended his arms wide in supplication. ‘What am I to do, Nick?’

‘Endure these slights with dignity.’

‘Never!’

‘Make friends with Sebastian. It is the only way.’

‘I would sooner consort with a leper.’

‘Do not come to blows with him again,’ warned Nicholas.

‘I dare not,’ said Elias with lilting menace. ‘For next time, nobody would be able to stop me. I would kill him.’

 

Cornelius Gant pointed the musket at the horse’s head and callously pulled the trigger. There was a loud report and a cloud of smoke went up from the weapon. The animal staggered bravely for a few seconds then sank to the ground in a sorry heap and began to twitch violently as the last ounces of life poured out of its noble carcass. It was a grotesque and sickening sight. When its death throes were finally over and its frenzy mercifully abated, it lay cold and silent on the cobblestones, its black coat gilded by the sun and its body twisted into such an unnatural shape that it drew groans of horror from all who had witnessed the summary slaughter. A happy crowd became hostile in a flash. They cursed the cruel owner and formed a ring of gathering fury around him. Cornelius Gant was defiant. As they closed in, baying for retribution, he held the musket like a club and threatened to strike. The tension
was heightened until it was on the verge of an explosion.

BOOK: The Mad Courtesan
9.53Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
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