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"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 hiskilt."
"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.
Thorpe joined him. "Damned if I can make out how you always have the ladybirds squabbling over you," he said admiringly, "when you never have a feather to fly with, let alone to feather their nests."
"It's my natural charm and manly beauty, Gerald. There's something about black hair, blue eyes and a broken nose to which females naturally gravitate."
"Ha! M'sister Lottie says you'd be the very image of a pirate if you were bearded and a trifle taller."
Laughing, Miles glanced back, to see his whilom mistresses with their arms about each other, temporarily united in their temporary hatred of men. Doubtless each would find a new lover tonight, he thought cynically. Already Levison and young Grant were bearing down upon them.
A pretty redhead in a canary-and-rose striped sarcenet gown glided up beside him. "Looking for company, Mr Courtenay?" she enquired coyly.
Miles ran his eyes slowly up and down her lush figure and smiled. "I'm not looking for creampot love," he warned. "It's low tide with me."
Shamelessly matching his deliberate scrutiny, she took his arm. "From what I've 'eard, you've other things to offer a girl. Let's give it a try for tonight, eh? I'm Roxanna, and deelighted to make your acquaintance, I'm sure."
With a gallant bow, Miles raised her hand to his lips. "The pleasure is all mine, madam," he murmured.
Lord Thorpe sighed and shook his head. "What I wouldn't give for your reputation!"
"Deserved, I assure you."
"Braggart! Will you and Miss Roxanna join Suzette and me at the Piazza for supper? I'll pick her up at Drury Lane and we'll meet you there."
Some hours later, after an energetic and satisfactory night, Miles strolled homeward through the bustling early-morning streets. Always an abstemious drinker, whatever his other sins, he was in excellent spirits. He exchanged cheerful greetings with maids scrubbing front steps, bought from an itinerant vendor a hot meat pie which he shared with a stray dog, dropped a shilling in a blind beggar's palm, and arrived at his lodgings whistling "Cherry Ripe," out of tune.
His landlord, a retired gentleman's gentleman, accosted him when he was half way up the first flight of stairs. "There's a letter for you, Mr Courtenay, sir." He held up the folded sheet, just out of Miles's reach as he leant over the banisters. "And this month's rent's not been paid and next month's is due tomorrow, not to mention laundry and such."
"Tempus fugit, Burkle, which in the vernacular is how time flies! Let me have it, there's a good fellow. I'll give you something on account today, I swear it."
"Paid in full, sir, or no letter."
"You're a hard man, Burkle. Still, I expect the letter can wait. Lady Luck's bound to smile on me soon."
"It's been redirected three times, Mr Courtenay," said Burkle sourly.
Miles was unsurprised. He removed from lodging to lodging often, with the rise and fall in his fortunes, though he'd never yet done a moonlight flit. Perhaps it was time to seek out cheaper rooms, which meant Burkle must be paid. Besides, a real letter sent by the post was a rarity. Most of the communications he received were brief notes from friends, appointing a meeting place; scented love-letters from the more literate of his chères-amies; or invitations from those ladies of the ton who had not yet consigned him to outer darkness.
"All right, Burkle," he said with a sigh, "come up and I'll settle the score. This month's, at least. As you pointed out yourself, October's rent is not due until tomorrow." He continued up the stairs, the landlord lumbering after him.
His purse lighter by eleven guineas, his conscience by a debt paid, he slit open the seal of the letter. Holding it in one hand and tugging off his neckcloth with the other, he moved to the window to read it.
"Confound it!" He raced out to the landing and shouted down the stairs, "Burkle, is today really the thirtieth?"
The landlord's injured face turned up to him. "Have I ever lied to you, Mr Courtenay?"
"Hot water! At once, if not sooner!"
Washed, shaved, and dressed for driving in a brown coat, buckskin breeches, and top-boots, Miles hurried towards St James's. The caped greatcoat over one arm and portmanteau in the opposite hand were scarcely suitable burdens for a gentleman, but few if any of the Polite World were yet about. He ran up the steps of Lord Haverford's mansion and beat a tattoo on the door.
As the porter opened the door, the butler was crossing the marble-floored hall with a steaming coffee-pot.
"Bristow!" Miles cried, entering without ceremony. "Is Lord Thorpe at home?"
"I shall enquire in a moment, sir," said the butler, unmoved, and proceeded on his stately way towards the breakfast parlour.
"It's urgent. Wake him if necessary." He set down his portmanteau on the floor, tossed his overcoat on a chair, handed hat and gloves to the porter, and ran his hand through his hair.
From the breakfast parlour came Lady Haverford's stentorian tones. "Tell Mr Courtenay to come here," she commanded.
Bristow reappeared, sans coffee-pot. "Her ladyship requests the pleasure of your company, sir."
With a groan, Miles complied, saying over his shoulder, "For heaven's sake, tell Thorpe I need him."
The Marchioness of Haverford, who happened to be his godmother, possessed a figure as imposing as her voice. Dressed in eau de Nil figured silk, she sat at breakfast with her youngest daughter, a pretty young lady in pink jaconet muslin who blushed as she caught Miles's eye. She it was who had likened him to a pirate.
He made his bows. "I beg your pardon for intruding, ma'am. I did not expect any of the family to be down."
"Lottie has fittings this morning. Well, Miles, what brings you bellowing for Gerald at this unlikely hour? Have you breakfasted?"
"As a matter of fact, no." He was ravenous, he realized, and it would be crackbrained to set off for Dorset on an empty stomach.
"Sit down, dear boy, and Bristow shall bring you a beefsteak. Lottie, pour coffee for Mr Courtenay."
"Yes, Mama." Lady Charlotte blushed again as she handed him the cup. Miles wondered what tales she had been told about him. Though Lady Haverford had a kindness for her girlhood friend's orphaned son, she'd have left her daughter in no doubt of the ineligibility of a penniless rake.
Not that he had the slightest intention of losing his freedom in wedlock, even for the sake of repairing his fortunes.
Either her ladyship had forgotten that she wanted to know what brought him here so early, or she feared his business with Thorpe was not proper for a young lady's ears. She chatted about the coming entertainments of the Little Season while he attacked a large beefsteak with fried potatoes.
He was half way through it when Bristow reappeared and said discreetly in his ear, "Lord Thorpe's man says his lordship did not retire until daybreak, sir, and he won't take it upon himself to wake him."
Miles nodded. "Never mind, I'll do my own dirty work," he said, and rapidly finishing his breakfast, he made his excuses and ran upstairs to his friend's chamber.
It took a wet sponge to rouse Thorpe and a pint of strong coffee to bring him to something approaching coherence. "Wanna borrow my curricle?" he asked incredulously. "At dawn?"
"It's not dawn, Gerald, and I have a hundred and thirty miles to go by nine tomorrow morning."
"Hunnerd thirty! Wha' the devil?"
"My godfather is dead..."
"Didn' know y'ad one."
"Sir Barnabas Philpott, Baronet, of Addlescombe in Dorset. If I'm not there at the reading of the Will, I'll inherit nothing."
That caught Thorpe's attention. "Will, eh? Plump in the pocket, this Philpott fellow?"
"My dear chap, of course you can borrow the curricle. Tell you what, I'll drive my greys the first couple of stages, see you well on your way." He swung his legs out of bed and bellowed for his valet. "Or shall I come all the way with you?"
"Lord, no. I wouldn't for the world subject you to the swarm of spongers the old man kept hanging on his sleeve. He deplored my behaviour, you know, and probably summoned me down posthumously in order to cut me off with a shilling. I wouldn't be surprised if he regarded his last Will and Testament as a final opportunity to read me a sermon."
"I can't believe he'd have demanded your presence if he hasn't left you something worth having."
"You didn't know my godfather," Miles pointed out dryly. "Dyspeptic, straitlaced, mean-spirited, and utterly determined to be proved right. He said I'd go to the dogs and nothing is less likely than that he'd lift a finger to prevent it. All the same, I'll have to gamble on his relenting at the last and leaving me a fortune. I'm going to get there in time even if hiring post-horses takes my last penny."