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

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BOOK: The Mad Courtesan
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His smile was warm and grateful. Dropping some crowns into the goblet on the floor, he slipped an arm around her to give her one last, long kiss then he opened the door and went swiftly out. Frances reached instinctively for the goblet and found it empty. His farewell embrace had been a cruel trick to recover his money and she was left with nothing but a sour memory. Grabbing the knife beneath her pillow, she raced out into the murky passageway but he was already vanishing down the steps. She went quickly back to her bedroom window and flung it open, waiting until her deceitful lover came out into the street before giving a signal with the knife. She then turned back into the room and flung the weapon with such force at the door that it sunk two inches into the wood and vibrated almost as angrily as she did.

The young man, meanwhile, ambled happily along and told himself that the gift of his body was reward enough for any woman and that – by rights – Frances should have paid him. He laughed aloud as he imagined her horror at finding the goblet raided by his sly hand and congratulated himself on getting so much out of the Pickt-hatch for so little. It had been a most pleasant night.

‘Stay, sir!’ called a voice behind him.

‘Why so?’

He turned to ask the last question of his life and got the answer in the shape of a hand-axe that came out of the darkness with vengeful power to cleave his head open and put an extra inch between his staring eyes. Blood drenched him in an instant and the open mouth filled with gore. Before he hit the ground and lay in the offal, he was dead.

Sebastian Carrick had paid for his pleasure after all.

T
heatre companies were like families, haphazard groups of people who were bonded temporarily together by a shared home and a common objective. Filial affection was spontaneous and intimacies flourished. Loyalty was deep. Idiosyncrasies were tolerated in the capacious bosom of the family. Blood was thicker than water. If actors fell idle, they were friendless vagabonds cast out into the wilderness: hired again, they got instant access to the comforts of hearth and home. The lonely exile became the prodigal son.

Nicholas Bracewell did much to foster the spirit of kinship among Westfield’s Men so that each time it changed its face, the smile remained the same. Continuity of style and purpose was essential. Nobody was more attuned to the different moods and personalities of the company members and he helped to blend them into a single clan. While Lawrence Firethorn was the stern father of the family – and
Barnaby Gill the clucking mother hen – Nicholas brought an avuncular concern to his role and cared profoundly for all his nephews. It did not take him long to learn their habits.

‘Good morning, Master Bracewell.’

‘Good morning, Thomas.’

‘What do we play today?’


Marriage and Mischief.

‘Bushes and benches.’

‘As you say, Thomas. Bushes and benches.’

It was early morning and Nicholas had, as usual, arrived first at the Queen’s Head. He knew the precise order in which his colleagues would make their appearance. Leading the procession was Thomas Skillen, the ancient stagekeeper, a man whose forty years in the theatre enabled him to reduce all plays to one telling phrase.
Marriage and Mischief
was a lively comedy of misunderstanding which made great use of eavesdropping in a garden. It was a glorious romp with colourful characters and a complicated plot but the old man had summed it up perfectly. Something to hide behind and something to sit on. Bushes and benches.

A youth raced up to them. ‘Good morning, masters.’

‘You are late, George,’ grumbled the stagekeeper.

‘You are in good time, lad,’ said Nicholas warmly. ‘Now stand still and catch your breath.’

‘I have been running.’

‘Rise earlier and walk to your employment,’ said Skillen.

‘You are sweating like a pig on a spit.’

George Dart was the smallest, youngest and most abused
member of the company. He was a convenient whipping boy and not even the friendship of the book holder could protect him from the lash. As an assistant stagekeeper, he was always given the most menial chores and he had already resigned himself to a day of moving the prickliest bushes and the heaviest benches on and offstage. Thomas Skillen might be gnarled with age but he could still clip an ear of his underlings with effect.
Marriage and Mischief
would bring the customary round of prods and pushes for George Dart who would find an odd kind of reassurance in them. They proved that he was accepted by the company. Pain was home.

Nathan Curtis was the next to stride into the yard at the Queen’s Head. As the company’s master carpenter, he was always in demand, making new properties and scenery or restoring old ones. Hard on his heels came Peter Digby, the leader of the musicians, a thin, ascetic man of nervous disposition, who liked to be there well before he was needed. When the first of the actors joined them, Nicholas did not even need to turn around to see who it was. As soon as he heard the approach of footsteps behind him, he believed that he could identify the newcomer.

‘Good morrow, Sebastian.’

‘You insult me,’ said a Welsh voice.

Nicholas swung round in surprise. ‘Owen!’

‘Even he.’

‘I had expected …’

‘For once, I am first in line.’

The book holder gave him a proper welcome and
talked about Owen Elias’s role in the forthcoming drama, showing a genuine interest in his colleague’s performance and making some useful suggestions. As they conversed, however, he kept one eye on the main entrance to the yard as he awaited the imminent arrival of Sebastian Carrick. The latter might have the inclinations of a dissolute but he was also a committed professional who put his acting before anything else. Even after a long night of indulgence, he would be the first of the hired actors to report to the Queen’s Head; indeed, it was this unquenchable enthusiasm for his work – carefully hidden beneath an easy-going disdain – which made him a potential sharer with Westfield’s Men. Lateness was almost unknown to Carrick so his continued absence was worrying.

Nicholas kept watch but there was no sign of him. Hugh Wegges, the tireman, was the next to show up, followed by the skipping eagerness of Richard Honeydew, the youngest and most talented of the boy apprentices. New faces came in twos and threes until the majority of the company was assembled in the yard but Sebastian Carrick still refused to come. As the stragglers drifted in, Nicholas’s anxiety was fringed with alarm. Only the most serious mishap could detain the actor from a rehearsal, especially one of a play in which he had an important supporting role.

Lawrence Firethorn, predictably, was the last to turn up so that he could make a dramatic entry on his horse. As he rode into a yard that was now humming with activity, he surveyed his fellows with a lordly air then raised his hat in acknowledgement of the greetings he attracted. When an
ostler came to take his horse, the actor-manager dismounted and summoned his book holder.

‘Nick, dear heart! A word, sir.’

‘As many as you wish,’ said the other.

‘Let’s stand aside.’ Firethorn whisked him into a quiet corner. ‘We had private conference yesterday to settle on the choice of a new sharer. Sebastian Carrick was preferred to Owen Elias. Does that win your good opinion?’

‘Not entirely,’ said Nicholas. ‘Both men are worthy, in their several ways, but Owen Elias has the greater ability and range of experience.’

‘Other reasons spoke against him.’

‘Sebastian has defects, too.’

‘We have decided to overlook them and offer advancement to him. I want you to impart the glad tidings.’

‘He is not here to receive them.’

‘Not here? Our early bird still abed for once?’

‘I hope that is the case.’

‘What else?’ said Firethorn. ‘He will be here anon. I will warm his ears for being laggard then you can soothe them with this timely news.’ He saw the disquiet on the other’s brow and clapped him familiarly on the shoulder. ‘Do not fret, Nick. No harm has befallen him. Sebastian can walk the darkest streets of the city with safety. Be assured of it. He will not fall among thieves.’

 

When the rider appeared on the horizon, the two men could not believe their luck. Travel through open country was always a hazardous business. Rogues, vagabonds, outlaws,
robbers, beggars and masterless men were a constant threat to the unwary and the unguarded. Occasional bands of gypsies posed a further threat to the solitary traveller. Most people sought company when they moved between towns and long journeys were rarely undertaken without adequate convoy. Yet here was a man completely on his own, well dressed, as far as they could judge at that distance, and mounted on a sturdy black stallion that moved along the rough track at a steady canter. The closer the rider came, the more convinced were the two men that Fortune was indeed favouring them. Sitting astride their own horses, they lurked in the shelter of a copse as their prey descended the hill towards them with an obliging readiness. A glance between them sealed his fate and they drew their swords for the ambush.

But the attack was not even necessary. When the man was no more than forty yards away, he suddenly reined in his mount beside some gorse bushes and slipped from the saddle. Fiddling with his breeches, he went behind the bushes with the obvious purpose of relieving himself and his spectators grinned. They would not even need their weapons for this work. The horse was their target, as fine an animal as they had seen in a long time with good conformation, a sleek coat and a touch of real breeding that made their own flea-bitten nags look like the tired jades they were. Black all over, it had a white blaze that ran from ear to nostril like a flash of lightning exploding from a mass of black cloud. Horse and saddle were rich enough bounty in themselves but the pouches that were slung across its loins – embroidered leather that bulged with promise –
could bring greater reward yet. During those two fateful minutes behind a gorse bush, the rider would be relieved of more than his discomfort.

The highwaymen did not delay any longer. Spurring their horses into action, they closed on the stallion and one of them gathered up its reins as they passed. As three sets of hooves clacked on the hard surface of the track, a yell of utter horror went up from behind the bushes. The robbers laughed aloud at what they took to be the bare-arsed abuse that pursued them until they were out of earshot but the hapless wayfarer was now letting his own mirth show. With breeches now up again, he sat in the shade of an elm and pulled out an apple from inside his doublet. He took a first bite and chewed away happily in the confident knowledge that he would not have long to wait.

When they had put a mile or more between themselves and their victim, the two men paused in a clearing in the wood to assess their takings. The stolen horse was even more of a prize than they had imagined and its saddle was a work of art. They dismounted at speed and ran to clutch at the leather pouches but it was a mistake that they would rue for a long while because the stallion reared up on its hind legs and kicked out savagely. Taken completely by surprise, they fell to the ground in mortal terror. Instead of trampling them while it could, however, the animal emitted a high neigh that produced an answering call from the other horses. Before the men could do anything to stop them, all three went galloping off in the direction from which they had come.

Cornelius Gant had almost finished his apple by the time that Nimbus brought its two companions up to him. The old man gave him a slap of thanks then fed him the core as a further sign of congratulation. It was the work of minutes to search the other two horses for booty. Small sacks that hung from pommels yielded up food, money and other stolen items. When he had transferred the provender to Nimbus, he gave each of the other beasts a slap on the rump that sent it careering wildly off into the undergrowth. Cornelius Gant and Nimbus continued briskly on their way towards Banbury.

It was proving to be an eventful journey.

 

Marriage and Mischief
was a perennial favourite which brought a large and vocal audience to the yard of the Queen’s Head and they were not disappointed by the latest rendering of the piece. The comedy was driven along at a cracking pace with a control that never faltered. As the spectators howled with glee or shook with mirth, they never suspected for a moment that the real drama had occurred backstage and jeopardised their entertainment completely. Sebastian Carrick’s failure to appear had forced eleventh-hour changes on the company which had sapped its morale and sent it out on the stage with some trepidation, but it found itself both equal to the emergency and able to disguise it from the onlookers. Owen Elias was given instant promotion and he seized his opportunity with relish, playing his rival’s part as if he had been rehearsing it all his life. He fumed and foamed as a jealous husband who
wrongly suspects his wife of infidelity, giving a performance that was at once more comic and incisive than that of the actor he had replaced. Elias’s freewheeling confidence was a tonic to his fellows and they responded accordingly. As Lawrence Firethorn led his troupe out to acknowledge the ovation at the end of the play, he knew that they had given as good an account of
Marriage and Mischief
as they had ever done.

Standing in his accustomed place, Nicholas Bracewell gave his full concentration to the task of prompting, giving cues, issuing advice and generally controlling the swirling chaos behind the scenes. He was able to relax slightly now and to address the problem of Sebastian Carrick’s absence. It was as distressing as it was untypical. An actor who prided himself on his work and his punctuality had committed the unforgivable sin of leaving the company in the lurch. He had not even sent a word of warning that he was indisposed. Was he ill? Had he been deliberately led astray? Could he
still
be sleeping off a night of debauchery? Nicholas had grave doubts on all three accounts. A more grim explanation suggested itself and the book holder felt a sharp pang of apprehension.

It was not eased when he looked across at Owen Elias who was now bowing low and drinking in the applause as if he had played the leading part. When asked to step into the breach at such short notice, the Welshman showed neither surprise nor alarm but simply grabbed the book to study the new part. While the actor conned his lines, Hugh Wegges helped him into his costume and used a deft needle
to make the adjustments that were necessary. Owen Elias was supremely relaxed. It was almost as if he
knew
that he would be required to cover for an erring colleague and he did so with impressive skill. Much as he liked his friend, Nicholas was bound to wonder if he was in some way connected with the convenient disappearance of Sebastian Carrick.

As the applause began to fade, Lawrence Firethorn took one last flamboyant bow before bringing the cast back into the tiring-house. Beaming actor became outraged employer.

‘Where the devil
is
he, Nick?’ snarled Firethorn.

‘I wish I knew,’ said Nicholas.

‘He will be dismissed from the company!’

‘Do not be too hasty, master. Sebastian may not be at fault here. Something must have prevented him. He is too loyal an actor to betray us deliberately.’

‘We faced disaster on that stage!’

‘Yet you created a triumph.’

Firethorn preened himself. ‘I thrive on adversity.’

‘Owen Elias was our hero this afternoon,’ said Barnaby Gill, seeing the chance to needle the actor-manager. ‘I hope you will now see how foolish it would be to elect Sebastian Carrick as our new sharer. His conduct is unforgivable. The Welshman is made of truer steel. His performance today had something of your genius, Lawrence.’

BOOK: The Mad Courtesan
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ads

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