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Lawrence Firethorn gazed down in horror at the corpse of his young wife and let out a sigh of utter despair that sent tremors through all who heard it. Swaying over the hapless figure of the child-bride who had been plucked from him on his wedding night, he howled like an animal then held up his hands to heaven in supplication. When no comfort came from above, he was seized with an urge to wreak revenge for the savage murder and he pulled out his dagger to slash wildly at the air. The hopelessness of the gesture made him stand quite still and weep fresh tears of remorse. Then, on impulse, with a suddenness that took everyone by surprise, he turned the point of the dagger on himself and used brute power to plunge it deep into his own breast. Firethorn shuddered and fell to one knee. Though fading with each second, he managed to deliver a speech of sixteen lines with poignant clarity. He was down on both knees when he breathed his last.
Bereft am I of heart and hope, dear bride,
In your foul death, happiness itself has died.
Adieu, cruel world! Farewell, abhorred life!
I quit this void to join my loving wife.
Firethorn hit the ground with a thud that echoed through the taut silence. His outstretched fingertips made a last contact with the pale and forlorn hand of his bride. Anguished servants entered and the two bodies were lifted on to biers with reverential care before being carried out to solemn music. The noble Count Orlando and his adored young Countess would share a marriage bed in the family vault. Harrowed by the tragedyand caught up in its full implications, the onlookers did not dare to move or speak. Mute distress enfolded them.
It was broken in an instant by the reappearance of Lawrence Firethorn, leading out his company to take their bow before the full audience that was packed into the yard at the Queen's Head in Gracechurch Street. He was no stricken aristocrat now, no Italian nobleman who had just committed suicide in a fit of unbearable grief. Firethorn was the finest actor in London, pulsing with vitality and bristling with curiosity, coming out to take his place at the centre of the stage and reap his due reward while at the same time scanning the upper gallery for a particular face. Count Orlando was only one in a long line of tragic heroes played by the acknowledged star of Westfield's Men and it was a role in which he never ceased to work his will upon the raw emotions of the audience. They clapped and cheered and stamped their feet to show their approval of the play. Death and Darkness had weaved its magic web once more. Firethorn was being feted.
Applause was the life-blood of an actor and each member of the cast felt it coursing through his veins. Firethorn might think that all the adulation was being directed solely at him and he was replying with a bow of almost imperious humility but his fellows could dream their dreams as well. The small, squat figure of Barnaby Gill, standing beside him, believed that the ovation was in recognition of his performance as Quaglino, the ancient retainer, the one comic character in a tragic tale, the single filter of light in the prevailing blackness of the play. Edmund Hoode, tall, spare and with a youthful innocence that belied his age, pretended that the applause was in gratitude both for his affecting performance as the doomed lover of the Countess and for his skill as a playwright. Death and Darkness was an early piece from his pen but it had stood the test of time and the close scrutiny of many an audience.
And so it was with the rest of the company, right down to its meanest member, George Dart, the tiny assistant stagekeeper, pressed into service as a soldier, proudly wearing the uniform of Count Orlando's guard and quietly congratulating himself on having got his one deathless line`My lord, the Duke of Milan waits upon you'right for the first time in weeks. Though put inconspicuously at the outer limit of the semi-circle of actors, he bowed as deep as any of them, feeding hungrily on the sustained clapping while he could, knowing that he would be back to a more meagre diet of chores, complaints, gibes, outright abuse and occasional blows once he left the stage and returned to his accustomed role as the lowliest of the low. Theatre was indeed sweet fancy.
Nicholas Bracewell watched it all from his position behind the curtains. He was a big, well-groomed, handsome man with fair hair and a full beard. As book holder with the company, he stage-managed every performance with an attention to detail that lifted Westfield's Men above so many of their rivals. No matter how generous it might be, applause never penetrated to his domain behind the scenes and this state of affairs suited Nicholas. He had a commanding presence that was offset by a gift for self-effacement and he courted the shadows more than the sun.
While Lawrence Firethorn and the others lapped up the tumultuous admiration, the book holder was still calmly doing his job, noting from his vantage point that Barnaby Gill had torn his hose, that Edmund Hoode had dropped a stitch in the rear of his doublet and that George Dart had somehow lost a buckle off his shoe. Nicholas had also observed in the course of a hectic two hours that entrances had been missed, lines had gone astray and the musicians had not been at their most harmonious. He would have stern words for the offenders afterwards and would even be courageous enough to tell the volatile Firethorn that, during one of his major speeches, the leading man had mistakenly inserted four lines from another play. Nicholas was a relentless perfectionist.
He had also come to know his employer very well. Even though his view of Firethorn was confined to a bending back and a pair of thrusting buttocks, he could see what was animating Count Orlando. Somewhere in the gallery was a new female face with a roguish charm that had ensnared the actor. Nicholas had spotted the signs earlier when Firethorn was in the tiring-house, working himself up to full pitch, smiling benignly for once on all around him, evincing a confidence that was fringed with nervousness and hogging the mirror even more than usual. The book holder groaned inwardly. It was bad news for the whole company when its actor-manager blundered into yet another romantic entanglement, and it was an extra burden on Nicholas Bracewell because he was invariably used as a reluctant go-between. There was danger in the air.
Lawrence Firethorn confirmed it within a matter of seconds. After taking a last, loving, lingering bow, he blew a kiss to the upper gallery then led his troupe from the stage. As they poured into the tiring-house, they could still hear the tide of approval as it slowly ebbed away. The actors fell into happy chatter and the musicians began to play in their elevated position to cover the noisy departure of their patrons. With his familiar eagerness, Firethorn swooped down on his book holder.
`Nick, dear heart! I have important work for you.'
`There are chores enough to keep me busy, sir.'
`This is a special commission,' said Firethorn. `It comes direct from Cupid.'
`Can it not wait, Master?' said Nicholas, trying to evade a duty that was about to be thrust upon him. `I am needed here, as you may well judge.'
Firethorn grabbed him by the arm, pushed him towards the curtain then drew it slightly back to give them a view of the yard. His voice was an urgent hiss.
`Find out who she is!'
`Which lady has caught your attention?'
`That creature of pure joy and beauty.'
`There are several to fit that description,' said Nicholas, surveying the crowd as it dispersed. `How am I to pick her out from such a throng?'
`Are you blind, man!' howled Firethorn, pointing a finger. `She is there in the upper gallery.'
`Amid three dozen or more fair maids.'
`Outshining them all with her splendour.'
`I fear I cannot pick her out, Master.'
`The angel wears blue and pink.'
`As do several others.'
`Enough of this, you wretch!'
Firethorn punched him playfully and Nicholas saw that he could not escape his appointed task by a show of confusion. He had seen the young woman at once and the sight of her had rung a warning bell inside his skull. Even in the blaze of colour provided by the gallants and the ladies all around her, she stood out with ease. Her face was small, oval and exquisitely lovely with none of the cosmetic aids on which others had to rely so heavily. She was quite petite with a delicate vivacity apparent even at a cursory glance. Nicholas put her age at no more than twenty. She wore a dress in the Spanish fashion with a round, stiff-laced collar above a blue bodice that was fitted with sleeves of a darker hue. Pink ribbons flowed down both arms. Her skirt ballooned out with a matching explosion of blue and pink. Jewellery added the final touch to a glittering portrait.
`I think you have marked her now,' said Firethorn with a chuckle. `Is she not divine?'
`Indeed, yes,' agreed Nicholas. `But you are not the first to make that observation.'
`She is in the company of two young gentlemen.'
`What should I care?'
`Haply, one of them might be her husband.'
`That will not deter me, Nick. Had she fifty or more husbands, I would still pursue her. It only serves to add spice to the chase. I have something that no other man can offer. True genius upon the stage!'
`The lady has seen you at your peak.'
`Count Orlando has conquered her,' said Firethorn grandly. `I saw it every time I stepped out upon the boards. I drew tears from those pearls that are her eyes. I made her little heart beat out the tune of love.'
Nicholas Bracewell gave the resigned sigh of someone who had heard it all before. The actor had immense talent but it was matched by immense vanity. Firethorn believed that he simply had to perform one of his major roles in front of a woman and she would fling herself into his bed without reservation or delay. What made his latest target more alarming to Nicholas was the fact that she did not conform to the accepted type. Here was no practised coquette, sending hot glances down to stir Firethorn's ardour. The young woman was self-evidently not the kind of court beauty who enjoyed an occasional dalliance to break up the monotony of an idle and powdered existence. For all her undeniable charms and her gorgeous array, there was a wan simplicity about her, a lack of sophistication, the shy awkwardness of someone who was enthralled by the play without quite knowing how to comport herself at a playhouse.
She was unawakened and Lawrence Firethorn had elected himself as the man to open her eyes.
`Find out who she is, Nick.'
`Leave it with me, sir.'
`About it straight.'
`As you wish.'
A stocky man of medium height, Firethorn filled his lungs to expand his chest and got a last, fleeting glimpse of her before she left the gallery. He had reached an irrevocable decision. Still in the attire of an Italian aristocrat, he stroked his dark, pointed beard and gave a Machiavellian smile.
`I must have her!'
* * *
Born and brought up in Richmond with its quiet beauty and its abundant royal associations, Anne Hendrik had never regretted her move to Southwark. It was a dirtier, darker and more populous area with lurking danger in its narrow thoroughfares and the threat of disease in its careless filth. But it was also one of the most colourful and cosmopolitan districts of London, a vibrant place that throbbed with excitement and which had become the home of theatres and bear-baiting arenas and other entertainments which could flourish best outside the city boundaries. Anne had chosen to live there when she married Jacob Hendrik, an immigrant hatmaker, who brought his Dutch skill and conscientiousness to his adopted country. Theirs was a happy marriage that produced no children but which gave birth to a steady flow of fashionable headgear for all classes. The Hendrik name became a seal of quality.
When her husband died, Anne inherited a comfortable house and a thriving business in the adjoining premises. A handsome woman in her thirties, she was expected by almost everyone to mourn for a decent interval before taking another man to the altar and there was no shortage of candidates seeking that honour. Anne Hendrik kept them all at bay with a show of independence that was unlikely in a woman in her position. Instead of taking the softer options posed by remarriage, she picked up the reins of the business and proved that she had more than enough shrewdness and acumen to drive it along. Like her husband before her, she was not afraid to use a judicious crack of the whip over her employees.
`This will not be tolerated much longer,' she said.
`Hans is a good craftsman,' argued her companion.
`Only when he is here.'
`The boy was sent on an errand, Mistress.'
`He should have been back this long while.'
`Give him a little more time.'
`I have done that too often, Preben,' she said. `I will have to speak more harshly to Master Hans Kippel. If he wishes to remain as an apprentice under my roof, then he must mend his ways.'
`Let me talk to him in your stead.'
`You are too fond of the boy to scold him.'
Preben van Loew accepted the truth of the charge and nodded sadly. A dour, emaciated man in his fifties, he was the oldest and best of her employees and he had been a close friend of Jacob Hendrik. Though he specialized in making ostentatious hats for the gentry, the Dutchman was soberly dressed himself and wore only a simple cap upon his bulbous head. Hans Kippel was far and away the most able of the apprentices when he put his mind to it but there was a wayward streak in the youth that made for bad timekeeping and lapses of concentration. Entrusted with the task of delivering some hats in the city itself, he should have been back with the money almost an hour ago. Anne liked him enormously but even her affection was not proof against the nudging suspicion that temptation might have been too much for the lad. The money that he was carrying was worth more than three months' wages and he would not have been the first apprentice to abscond.
Preben van Loew read her mind and rushed to the defence of his young colleague.
`Hans is an honest boy,' he said earnestly.
`Let us hope so.'
`I know his family as well as my own. We grew up together in Amsterdam. You can always put your trust in a Kippel. They will never let you down.'
`Then where is he now?'
`On the road back, Mistress.'
`By way of Amsterdam?'
She had meant it as a joke but she rued it when his face crumpled. Preben van Loew was the mainstay of the business and she did not want to upset him in any way. At the same time, she could not allow an apprentice too much leeway or he would be bound to take advantage. Anne tried to make amends by praising the handiwork of her senior employee who was about to put the last carefully-chosen feather into a tall hat with a curling brim. It was a small masterpiece that would grace the head of a gallant. The Dutchman allowed himself to be mollified then fell into a refrain that she had heard all too often on the lips of her husband.
`They do us wrong to keep us out,' he moaned.
`It is the English way, I fear.'
`Why do they fear the foreigner so?'
`Simply because he is foreign.'
`We make hats as good as theirs but they will not let us join their Guilds. They have the first choice of all the work that is on offer. We have to struggle on down here, outside the city limits, so that we do not offend their noses with our Dutch smell.'
`They are jealous of your skills, Preben.'
`It is unjust, Mistress.'
`Jacob said as much every day,' she recalled. `He went to them and put his arguments but they were deaf to his entreaties. All they would do was to boast about their history. They told him that the Hatters and the Furriers united with the Haberdashers at the very start of this century. Among those Hatters were the Feltmakers who have been trying to form their own Guild of late.'
`I know, Mistress,' he said gloomily. `But the move has been opposed. What does it matter to us? None of these precious Guilds will appreciate our quality. They just wish to look after themselves and keep us out.'
`It may change in time, Preben.'
`I will not live to see it.'
`Justice will one day be done.'
`It has no place in business.'
Anne Hendrik was unable to reply. Before she could open her mouth, the door flew open and a scrawny youth in buff jerkin and hose came staggering in. Hans Kippel could not have made a more dramatic entrance. Anne moved across to reproach him and Preben van Loew stepped in to protect him then they both took a closer look at the newcomer. He was in great distress. His clothes were torn, his face was bruised and blood was oozing freely from a deep gash in his temple. Hans Kippel could barely stand. They helped him quickly to a seat.
`Rest yourself here,' said Anne.
`What happened?' asked Preben van Loew.
`I will send for a surgeon directly.'
`Tell us what befell you, Hans.'
The boy was trembling with fear. On the verge of exhaustion, he could barely dredge up strength enough to speak. When the words finally dribbled out, there was a tattered bravery to them.
`I saved ... it. They ... did not get ... the money ...'
With a ghost of a smile, he pitched forward on to the oak floorboards in a dead faint.
* * *
Stanford Place stood in a prime position on the east side of Bishopsgate and dwarfed the neighbouring dwellings. It was built in the reign of Edward IV and had now been arresting eyes and exciting envy for well over a century. With a frontage of almost two hundred feet, it had four storeys, each one jettied out above the floor below. Time had wearied the timber framing somewhat and the beams had settled at a slight angle to give the facade a curiously lop-sided look but this only added to the character of the house. It was like a keystone in an arch and the adjacent buildings in Bishopsgate Street leaned against it for support with companionable familiarity.
The establishment ran to a dozen bedchambers, a small banqueting hall, a dining parlour, a drawing room, butler's lodging, servants' quarters, kitchens, a bake house, even a tiny chapel. There were also stables, outhouses and an extensive garden. It was around this last impressive feature of the house that its owner was perambulating in the early evening sunlight. Walter Stanford was a big, bluff man with apparel that suggested considerable wealth and a paunch which hinted at too ready an appetite. Yet though his body had succumbed to middle age, his plump face still had a boyish quality to it and the large brown eyes sparkled with childlike glee.
`There is always room for improvement, Simon.'
`No expense must be spared in pursuit of it.'
`That was ever your way, sir.'
`Look to the example of Theobalds,' said Stanford with a lordly wave of his hand. `When Sir Robert Cecil was gracious enough to invite a party of us there, we were conducted around his garden. Garden, do I say? It was truly a revelation.'
`You have commended it to me before, Master.'
`No praise is too high, Simon. Why, man, it beggars all description.' Stanford chortled as he hit his stride. `The garden at Theobalds is encompassed with a ditch full of water, so broad and inviting that a man could row a boat between the shrubs if he had a mind to. There was a great variety of trees and plants with labyrinths to provide sport and decoration. What pleased me most was the jet d'eau with its basin of white marble. I must have such a thing here.'
`Order has already been given for it.'
`Then there were columns and pyramids of wood at every turn. After seeing these, we were taken by the gardener into the summerhouse, in the lower part of which, built, as it were, in a semicircle, are the twelve Roman emperors in white marble, and a table of touchstone. The upper part of it is set round with cisterns of lead into which the water is conveyed through pipes, so that fish may be kept in them, and in summertime they are very convenient for bathing. And so it went on, Simon.'
As steward of the household, Simon Pendleton was well-acquainted with his master's enthusiasms. Unlike many who make large amounts of money, Walter Stanford was always looking for new ways to spend it and his home provided him with endless opportunities. The steward was a short, slim, unctuous man in his forties with a high forehead and greying beard. Trotting discreetly at the heels of the other, he made a mental note of any new commissions for the garden and there was much to keep him occupied. Every time Stanford paused, he ordered some new trees, shrubs, flowers, or herbs. Whenever a gap presented itself in some quiet corner, he decided to fill it with some statuary or with a pool. Parsimony was unknown to the master of Stanford Place. He was generosity itself when his interest was aroused.
`It must all be ready in time,' he warned.
`I will speak to the gardeners, sir.'
`My hour of triumph comes ever closer, Simon.'
`And much-deserved it is,' said the steward with an obsequious bow. `Your whole establishment is conscious of the honour that you bestow upon them. It will indeed be a privilege to serve the next Lord Mayor of London.'
`It will be the summit of my achievement.'
Stanford was lost for a moment in contemplation of the joys that lay ahead. Like his father before him, he was a Master of the Mercers' Company, the most prestigious Guild in the city, first in order of precedence on all ceremonial occasions, and immortalized by the name of London's revered mayor, Dick Whittington, who had slipped immoveably into the folk-memory of the capital. The great man had also been Master of the Company and it was Stanford's ambition to emulate some of his achievements. He wanted to leave his mark indelibly upon the city.
`He built the largest privy in London,' he mused fondly. `In the year of our Lord, 1419, Richard Whittington erected a convenience in Vintry Ward with sixty seats for Ladies and for Gentlemen, flushed with piped water. What a legacy to bequeath to old London town!'
Pendleton coughed discreetly and Stanford came out of his reverie. He was about to continue his walk when he saw someone flitting through the apple trees towards him on the tips of her toes. She wore a dress of blue and pink that set off the colour of her eyes and the rosiness of her cheeks. Stanford held his arms wide to welcome her and his steward melted quickly into the undergrowth. The young woman came gambolling excitedly up.
`Matilda!' said Stanford. `What means this haste?'
`Oh, sir, I have so much to tell you!' she gasped.
`Catch your breath first while I steal a kiss.' He bent over to peck her on the cheek then stood back to admire her. `You are truly the delight of my life!'
`I have found delights of my own, sir.'
`Where might they be?'
`At the playhouse,' she said. `We saw Westfield's Men perform this dolorous tragedy at the Queen's Head. It made me weep piteously but it also filled me with such wonder. I beg of you to indulge me. When you are made Lord Mayor of London, let us have a play to mark the occasion.'
`There will be a huge procession, child, a ceremonial parade through the streets of the city. It will lack nothing in pomp and pageant, that I can vouch.'
Excerpted from The Nine Giants by Edward Marston. Copyright © 1991 by Edward Marston. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.