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What was remarkable was the fact that she evidently did not set out to become a cynosure. There was a natural poise and a becoming modesty about her which forbade any deliberate attempt to court attention. Not for her the vivid plumage which some ladies wore or the extravagant gestures with which some gallants sought to make their presence felt. Her attire was sober, her manner restrained. That was the paradox. Here was a young woman whose desire to be invisible somehow made her strikingly conspicuous.
Owen Elias was the first to notice her. When he came out in a black cloak to deliver the Prologue, he was so dazzled by her that he all but forgot the rhyming couplet which ended the speech. The ebullient Welshman swept into the tiring-house at the rear of the makeshift stage and passed the warning on to Lawrence Firethorn.
'Beware!' he whispered.
'Why?' asked Firethorn.
'An angel has come to look down on us. Avoid her, Lawrence. Gaze up at her and you will not even remember what day it is, still less which role you are taking in what play.'
'Nothing can distract me!' asserted Firethorn, inflating his barrel chest. 'When I marshal my knights in Malta, the sight of Saint Peter and a whole choir of angels would not lead me astray. My art is adamantine proof.'
'She sits with Lord Westfield himself.'
'Some costly trull he keeps for amusement.'
'No trull, Lawrence, I do assure you.'
'Stand aside, Owen.'
'A heavenly creature in every particular.'
'They want me.'
As the martial music sounded, Firethorn, in the person of Jean de Valette, Grand Master of the Order, strutted imperiously onto the stage, with four knights in rudimentary armour at his back. It was a majestic entrance and it brought a round of applause from the throng. Lawrence Firethorn was the company's actor-manager, a man of towering histrionic skills with an incomparable record of success on the boards. He could breathe life into the most moribund character and transmute even the most banal verse into the purest poetry. Declaiming his first speech, he convinced his audience that he had a whole army at his behest and not a mere quartet of puny soldiers in rusty helmets and dented breast-plates.
'Fie upon this siege! Defiance is my cry! How dare the base and all-unworthy Turk Presume to touch this island paradise And crush its treasured liberties to death Beneath the blood-soaked heel of Ottoman. No tyrant from the east will conquer here. The Knights of Malta will protect the isle And fight with God Almighty at their side To bless their cause and urge them on to feats Of valour, acts of noble note, triumphing At the last o'er Turkish hordes, whate'er their Strength and purpose.'
Firethorn was not simply establishing his hold over the spectators and giving them a brief summary of the plot of the play, he was using the speech as a means of surveying the female faces in the galleries, feeding off their wide-eyed admiration and searching for a new conquest for his capacious bed. When his roving eye settled on Lord Westfield's young companion, it roved no further. She provided firm anchorage for his scrutiny. Like Owen Elias, he was struck by her beauty but it did not threaten to deprive him of his lines in the same way. Instead, the Grand Master of the Order of Saint John Jerusalem worked the bellows of his lungs to put more fire into his bold words and left flames of defiance crackling in the air when he quit the stage.
Nicholas Bracewell had the actors ready for the next scene. As the Knights of Malta made their exit, a booming drum announced the entry of the Turkish army. When the book- holder had ushered them into action, he had a moment to observe the bemused look on the face of the Grand Master.
'What ails you?' he asked with concern.
Firethorn beamed. 'He is right, Nick. He has hit the mark.'
'Owen. He first witnessed the miracle.'
'Miracle? What miracle?'
'The one beside Lord Westfield.'
Nicholas understood. 'A young lady, I think?'
'No, Nick,' said Firethorn, kissing his fingertips with expressive emotion. 'An alabaster Venus. A saint in blue apparel. Virginity made manifest.'
'Look to your defences,' advised the other, one ear on the progress of the play. 'Scene Three finds you inspecting the fortifications at Fort Saint Elmo. Stand by, for you will soon be called.'
Firethorn heaved a sigh. 'My walls have already been breached. Not by the Turkish soldiers or by any ordnance that man can muster. But by that divine creature in the lower gallery. Her eyes are cannon-balls that leave no stone of my heart still standing. I lie in ruins.' A beatific smile lit his countenance. 'Behold a Grand Master brought to his knees by a virtuous maid.'
'Edmund will not applaud your capitulation.'
'He has worked long and hard to repair this play,' reminded Nicholas. 'To make an old theme sound new-minted, he has rewritten the last two acts in their entirety. He will not thank you for surrendering Malta without even putting up token resistance.'
Firethorn's pride was stung. 'You mistake me, Nick. I do not yield to the enemy because I have seen a gorgeous apparition out there in the yard. Nothing will separate me from the part I play. I am Jean de Valette, lately Governor of Tripoli and Captain General of the Order's galleys, now elected Grand Master. Nobody will change that. But she will inspire me to greater heights. Edmund Hoode will have no complaint about The Knights of Malta. Under the spell of that demi-god beside our patron, I will give the performance of a lifetime. Besiege my island! Storm my fortresses! This indignity will not be borne. I'm in a mood to conquer the entire Ottoman Empire with my bare hands. Set me loose!'
When the fanfare sounded, Firethorn went bursting onto the stage to take command once more. Though he dedicated his lines to one select pair of ears, all the spectators were moved by the power and sincerity of his acting. Where he led, most of the company could not begin to follow. Firethorn was scaling mountain peaks that left them dizzy with fear. While he was helped by the sight of the mysterious young lady with Lord Westfield, they were fatally handicapped.
Even the dependable James Ingram was stricken.
'She is bewitching, Nick,' he said as he left the stage.
'Is that why you stuttered on your first line?' chided Nicholas. 'Is she the reason you dropped that goblet?'
'I was careless.'
'You are never careless, James.'
'Then my mind was elsewhere.'
'Our spectators will be elsewhere if we give such a poor account of ourselves. There's hardly a member of the cast who has not stumbled over his role.'
'The lady has unnerved us.'
'Will you let one solitary person affect you thus?' said Nicholas, loud enough for his reprimand to reach everyone in the tiring-house. 'I begin to think she has been planted on us by Banbury's Men to drive you all to distraction and make our rivals seem the finer company. This is a poor way indeed to serve our patron and our play.'
Ingram accepted the rebuke with a nod and vowed to make amends for his lapse of concentration during the next scene. But the list of casualties lengthened steadily. One by one, the actors succumbed to the subtle impact of the face in the lower gallery. Even the apprentices were not immune. Schooled to portray maiden modesty themselves, they became its hapless victims. Nicholas was shocked to see Richard Honeydew, the youngest, most talented and reliable of them, falling prey to the charms of the singular spectator and gabbling his words as if they were hot coals in his mouth that had to be spat out as soon as possible.
George Dart was the most spectacular casualty. The assistant stage-keeper, a reluctant actor at the best of times, was too busy in the early scenes trying to remember his lines and his moves as a Turkish soldier to notice any of the spectators. It was only when he saw the growing wonderment of his colleagues that he thought to look up at its source. It was a disastrous mistake. Instead of rounding up Maltese prisoners, Dart was an instant captive himself and gazed up at the gaoler of his heart so stead-fastly that he lost his bearings completely and wandered off the edge of the stage and into the arms of the standees in the front rank.
The smallest soldier ever to serve in the Turkish army now became the funniest, and the audience roared with laughter. By the time that Dart was thrown back onstage, the next scene had started and he found himself marooned in the middle of the enemy stronghold. Not knowing whether to stay or flee, he did both alternately, and his madcap indecision drew fresh hysteria from the crowd. It was only when the Grand Master lashed at him with a sword that Dart realised that a hasty retreat was in order.
Scurrying into the tiring-house, he fainted with relief at his escape and fell into the book-holder's arms. Nicholas winced. A tale of heroism was in danger of becoming a farce. He would have stern words for George Dart when the latter recovered to participate in the siege of Malta.
Predictably, there was only one survivor. Barnaby Gill, the company's acknowledged clown, was impervious to feminine beauty of any kind, treating all women with a police disdain as a necessary evil put upon the earth for the sole purpose of procreation. Gill's darker passions led him in another direction. When he first spied the lady who was causing such commotion among his fellows, he accorded her no more than a cursory glance. However, his attention soon returned to her when he realised that she was admiring his performance above all else on stage.
Gill took the role of Hilario, jester to the Knights of Malta, a man whose songs and dances brought welcome comic relief to a fraught situation. Hilario was also a key figure in the romantic sub-plot which enlivened the play. Whenever he appeared, the young woman clapped her gloved hands with polite enthusiasm and his jig in Act Three had her trembling with mirth. Gill responded by directing much of his performance at her, coaxing smiles, laughter and, eventually, tears of delight. In pleasing an honoured guest of their patron, he would earn Lord Westfield's gratitude and that was always to be sought.
Lawrence Firethorn was galled by his rival's success. As Hilario skipped nimbly offstage to sustained applause, the Grand Master was waiting to intercept him.
'There was no dance set down for that scene, Barnaby.'
'I invented one to satisfy my admirers.'
'The only admirer you have is the one who gazes back at you from the looking-glass. Play the scenes as they are written.'
'Save your strictures for our fellows,' said Gill with a dismissive wave. 'They deserve them, I do not. It is they who are enslaved by that creature beside our esteemed patron. While she has bewitched every man in the company, I alone have enchanted her. She rose to her feet after my last jig.'
'To break wind in disgust, no doubt.'
'The lady is a shrewd playgoer. She recognises genius.'
'That is why she hangs on every word I say.'
'Only hangs, Lawrence? She drools over mine. Your Knights of Malta may defeat the Turk, but Hilario is victor over both armies. Ask of the creature in blue. She worships me.'
Firethorn blustered impotently. The hideous truth had to be faced. Barnaby Gill was stealing the play from its leading player. The gorgeous young lady in the lower gallery somehow preferred a licensed fool to the Grand Master of the Order. Smarting from this blow to his professional pride, Firethorn blazed even more gloriously in the ensuing scenes. The rest of the audience were beneficiaries of this extraordinary display of his talent but he could still not win over the one person who mattered to him. Patently fascinated by his portrayal, she did not sigh at his setbacks or stir at his heroism. When he sent twenty lines of exquisite poetry winging its way up to her, all she could do was to watch him with quizzical interest. Then the clown stepped back into the action and her little hands were clapping once more.
It was humiliating. For once in his career, Firethorn was made to feel that he was failing both as an actor and as a man. Yielding the palm to Barnaby Gill—of all people—made the pain almost unendurable. The spectators at the Queen's Head saw none of his personal suffering. What they were witnessing was a stock play from the company's repertoire being turned into a small masterpiece by the spirited performance of the Grand Master and the comic genius of Hilario. Between them, the two men rescued the drama from its string of early mistakes and inspired the whole company to do itself justice.
Nicholas Bracewell was relieved that The Knights of Malta was now recognisably the piece which they had rehearsed. As the drama moved with gathering force into its final scene, he could sense the power it was exerting over its audience. It was then that Edmund Hoode made his only appearance. Having laboured so strenuously to refine and improve the play, the resident author of Westfield's Men made sure that he himself had a small but decisive role. Where better to impress himself upon the spectators' minds than at the very close? What part could be more ideal for this purpose than that of Don García de Toledo, Viceroy of Sicily and the man who finally raised the siege by coming to the aid of the gallant knights?
When Hoode made his triumphal entry, spontaneous cheers and applause broke out in the yard. It briefly turned a competent actor into an accomplished one and he declaimed his first few speeches with a panache worthy of Firethorn himself. When the Grand Master embraced him with thanks, however, Don García got his first glimpse of the face in the lower gallery. It took his breath away so completely that he could barely get his tongue around his lines. Eventually, after an interminable pause to collect himself, Hoode put tremendous feeling into the finest speech in the play.
Unfortunately, The Knights of Malta was not the play in question. Jolted out of character by the vision before him, he ended up in Love's Sacrifice, one of his own pieces. When it slowly dawned on the audience that Don García de Toledo, a military hero, was not celebrating his victory but declaring his undying passion to someone in a totally different play, the chuckles began in earnest. They soon turned to raucous jeers, and two hours of unremitting work upon the stage were in danger of being sunk beneath a sea of mocking laughter.
Firethorn saved the day with commendable speed. Pulling Don García into a second embrace, he spun him around so that Hoode was no longer able to see the lady whose beauty had ensnared him so utterly. With deft fingers, the Grand Master picked his pocket of all his remaining lines and delivered them himself, investing the words with such awe- some authority that the sniggers were soon cowed into silence. Control had been reaffirmed. The Knights of Malta was able to end on a high note and the company left the stage to deafening acclaim.
While the players came out to take their bows, Nicholas peeped through the curtain at the rear of the stage to take his own first look at Lord Westfield's guest. She had posed a far greater threat to Malta than the whole Turkish army, but it had been no deliberate attack. Any damage had been unwittingly caused. Nicholas could see that and his annoyance at once faded into admiration.
What surprised him most was her youth. The flamboyant Lord Westfield had a predilection for Court beauties, mature ladies who were seasoned in the arts of coquetry and who added a lustre to his entourage. The newcomer did not conform to the archetype in any detail. Nicholas decided that she could be no more than sixteen or seventeen at most. And with her tender years came the bloom of pure innocence.
Sparkling blue eyes were set in a face of delicate loveliness that needed no cosmetics. An inner radiance seemed to shine out of her. She wore a dress in the Spanish fashion with a corseted bodice in dark blue. A heavy, jewelled stomacher-front dipped to a point over her stiff farthingale skirt. A gown of a lighter-blue material fitted the shoulders and waist neatly. It was fastened from the high-standing collar to the hem with large jewelled buttons and loops. The wide lace ruff was a series of white petals around her face. Her fair hair was swept up under her tall-crowned, brimless hat, which had ostrich feathers held in place by precious stones.
Excerpted from The Fair Maid of Bohemia by Edward Marston Copyright © 1997 by Edward Marston. Excerpted by permission of Poisoned Pen Press. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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