Related collections and offers
About the Author
Read an Excerpt
Nicholas Bracewell had walked only fifty yards from the house when he saw the dead body. Covered in frost and spattered with mud, the old man lay in a narrow lane, huddled against a wall in a vain attempt to ward off the severe cold. Nicholas had seen death too many times to be shocked by its handiwork but he heaved a sigh of compassion at this latest example of its random cruelty. Its victim had been defenseless, an elderly beggar with no home to shelter him, no family to protect him, no warm food to sustain him, and no clothing beyond a few pitiful rags to keep the icy fangs of winter at bay. When he bent over the corpse, Nicholas was surprised to see a farewell smile etched into the haggard face. Here was a willing sacrifice, a creature so tormented by the miseries of his life and the extremities of the weather that he could not endure them another day. The grotesque, toothless, frozen smile signaled his escape and added a poignancy to his grim demise. Closing his eyes, Nicholas offered up a silent prayer for the soul of the dead man.
London had known cold winters before but this one seemed to be unusually harsh. It was as if Nature were exacting punishment for its earlier bounty. Having allowed the capital to bask in a hot summer and then enjoy a remarkably mild autumn, it made amends for its kindness by sending wind, rain, snow, ice, and fog to attack the city. Christmas had been celebrated in a blizzard. New Year's Day was pelted with hailstones. Twelfth Night was disturbed by a howling gale. A frozen river brought the cheering diversion of a Frost Fair on the broad back of the Thames but themood of elation soon passed as treacherous ice began to crack up indiscriminately, causing panic, injury, and an occasional drowning. There was no relief. When the snow thawed, it was quickly replaced with frost, colder, sharper, and more insidious in its effects. The very young or the dangerously old were the first to be cut down by its chill scythe. As he set off again, Nicholas knew that the beggar with the congealed smile would not be the last corpse to litter the streets of Bankside.
He found the watchmen at The Black Horse, drinking ale and keeping as close to the fire as they could, grumbling about the weather and complaining that honest men could hardly be expected to do their duty in such hostile conditions. It was a dank, dark inn, frequented by prostitutes and other lowlife in the area. Forsaking their roles, the two watchmen were making common cause with the very people they were appointed to keep under observation and, from time to time, arrest. It was not untypical behavior. Nicholas reported the death and described the location of the corpse but his words elicited no sympathy. The tall watchman with the straggly beard was merely irritated.
"Another one?" he protested, rubbing his hands before the flames. "Why don't these old fools have the grace to die in someone else's parish? He's the third this week to be snared by Jack Frost under our noses."
"Then he deserves some consideration," said Nicholas.
"So do we, good sir."
"One thing," said his companion, a short, smirking stoat of a man. "He's in a warmer place than we are, that's for sure. This cold has turned my pizzle to an icicle."
Nicholas was blunt. "Is that why you bring it into a leaping house instead of patrolling the streets as you're enjoined to do? If you had less concern for yourselves and more devotion to your work, you might be able to save a few lives for a change."
"You've no cause to scold us," said the stoat defensively.
"I've every cause. Now, show some respect for the dead. I've told you where his body lies. Arrange to have it removed. If it's still there when I return to Bankside, I'll come looking for the pair of you to know the reason why."
"What business is it of yours?"
"I live here."
"So do we."
"Then prove yourselves worthy neighbors."
Turning on his heel, Nicholas left the fetid taproom and stepped out into the fresh air. The icy wind plucked mischievously at him. He gave an involuntary shudder. He adjusted his cap and pulled his cloak more tightly around him. Swift movement was the best way to defeat the cold. Setting off at a brisk pace, he walked purposefully in the direction of the bridge, preferring to cross the river on foot rather than brave the rigors of a cold journey by boat. When he reached the corner of the street, he paused to look back. Shamed by his words, the two watchmen tumbled out of The Black Horse and slowly headed for the lane where the dead body had been discovered. Nicholas was satisfied. He continued on his way.
London Bridge was seething with activity. Parallel lines of shops and houses stretched the entire length of the structure, narrowing it to such an extent that there was barely room for wagons and coaches to pass one another. Nicholas pushed his way through the crowd, ignoring the brush of a horse's flank against his shoulder or the harder caress of the cart it was towing. His mind was still on the frozen figure in Bankside. It was not simply that he felt guilty about having slept in a warm bed while a man was shivering to death nearby. The sight had a deeper significance for him. In one tragic death, he saw the potential of several. Westfield's Men, his beloved theater company, was also a casualty of winter. Driven from its innyard venue by the malignant weather, its life was gradually ebbing away, its members thrown into the wilderness of unemployment, its work fading into distant memories, its willpower eroded to the point where it might soon just lie down, turn its face to the wall, and quietly expire.
Westfield's Men had endured many crises in the past. Plague and fire had driven them from the city; Privy Council and Puritans had threatened them within it. Rival companies had done everything in their power to destroy them. Nicholas was only the book holder, a hired man with no financial investment in the troupe, but he had led the fight against every enemy that threatened. Even he, however, was powerless against the vagaries of the English climate. The ugly truth had to be faced. If the austerities of winter continued for much longer, Westfield's Men would be starved into submission and frozen into a mass grave. Nicholas felt a pang of regret that made him catch his breath. Gritting his teeth, he quickened his step.
When he made his way to the other side of the bridge, Nicholas plunged into an even more turbulent sea of humanity. Gracechurch Street was given over to its market, a lively, sprawling free-for-all in which dozens of pungent odors competed to invade the nostrils and where the noise was deafening as traders yelled, customers haggled, horses neighed, and foraging dogs tried to outdo them all with a cacophony of snarling, yapping, and barking. Only the scavengers and pickpockets worked in silence. There was no room for calm reflection in such a throng. Nicholas had to watch where he was going and use his strong shoulders to force his way through the press of bodies. He was relieved when he ducked in through the gateway of The Queen's Head and left the frenzy behind him. His relief quickly changed into sadness. He came to an abrupt halt.
The innyard was empty. The venue where Westfield's Men had given their finest performances was cold, deserted, and neglected. Pools of ice glistened on the cobbles. The stables were uninhabited, the galleries vacant, and the roofs sprinkled with frost. It was disheartening. A yard that had witnessed stirring drama, echoed to the sound of mighty lines, or listened to the strains of expert musicians was now bereft of life or sound. Nicholas found it impossible to believe that he was standing on the very spot where the makeshift stage was erected. Had those bare galleries really been crammed with cheering spectators? Was that place of honor up above once occupied by their patron, Lord Westfield? Did hundreds of people actually stand shoulder to shoulder in that yard? Where had they all gone? Why had they left no sign of their passing? It was eerie.
One thing about The Queen's Head, however, did not change. Its landlord, Alexander Marwood, was the same miserable, mean-spirited ghoul that he always had been. As soon as the book holder stepped into the taproom, Marwood was at his shoulder.
"This weather will be the ruination of me!" he complained.
"It serves none of us well," said Nicholas wearily.
"But I suffer more than most, Master Bracewell. This damnable cold keeps the coaches away and my beds empty of custom. All that I get in here are the sweepings of the streets," he went on, extending an arm to take in the whole room. "Look at them. Not a gentlemen among them. Not a full purse in the whole establishment. Here we have nothing but knaves and rascals buying a niggardly cup of ale in order to sit out the whole day in front of my fire. Where's the profit in that? The cost of logs is crippling. And this evil company drives out good. It was ever thus."
Nicholas let him moan on for several minutes before cutting his litany short.
"Master Firethorn sent word that I should meet him here," he said.
Marwood nodded. "He's taken a private room. I'm to send you there."
"Direct my feet."
"First, let me tell you how oppressed I've been."
"Later," said Nicholas firmly. "I'll hear all later, I promise. Master Firethorn does not like to be kept waiting. Tell me where he is and I'll trouble you no further."
Peeved to be losing a sympathetic ear, Marwood sniffed noisily and explained where to find the room. Nicholas thanked him. He went up a flight of rickety stairs and along a passageway worn smooth by the tread of many feet. The landlord's directions were superfluous. From behind the door at the far end came a sound so deep, rich, and expressive that it could only have issued from the throat of Laurence Firethorn.
"No, no, no, you idiot! That is not what I said at all!"
Deprived of his rightful place on stage at the head of his company, Firethorn was taking out his frustration on Barnaby Gill, his old adversary. Nicholas tapped on the door, then opened it to walk in on a familiar scene. Firethorn was on his feet, gesticulating wildly; Gill was perched on a chair, arms folded and head turned away in disdain; and Edmund Hoode was flapping ineffectually between them like a dove of peace whose wings have been comprehensively clipped. Nicholas's arrival brought the argument to a sudden end. Hoode lurched across to embrace his friend.
"Nick!" he exclaimed. "Thank heaven you've come! Laurence and Barnaby are at each other's throats again. There'll be bloodshed soon if we don't stop them."
"Nonsense," said Firethorn with a ripe chuckle. "Barnaby and I had a slight difference of opinion, that is all. I was merely pointing out the stupidity of his argument."
"It pales beside the lunacy of your own," retorted Gill.
"You're each as bad as the other," chided Hoode. "Two squabbling children."
"Nick, dear heart," said Firethorn, closing the door and shepherding the newcomer toward a chair. "Come in and take your ease. It's a long, cold walk from Bankside but I've news that might warm you up. Sit down, good friend."
Slipping off his cloak, Nicholas took the chair in the corner while Firethorn and Hoode resumed their own seats. The atmosphere was fraught. An exchange of civilities helped to ease the tension slightly but it was not dispelled. Nicholas looked around his companions. Firethorn, the manager and leading actor of the company, was resplendent in his close-fitting Italian doublet, his beard well groomed, his eyes aflame. Gill, by contrast, shorter and slighter of build, was still wrapped up in his fur-trimmed cloak, brooding sulkily. A gifted clown onstage, he was morose and capricious when he quit the boards, qualities that were intensified by his keen rivalry with Firethorn. Edmund Hoode was the resident playwright, a pale, thin, self-effacing man who all too often found himself being ground helplessly between the mill wheels of Firethorn and Gill. Hoode's attire was more sober and far less expensive than that of his two colleagues. Because there was no heat in the room, all three of them still wore their hats.
"Thus it stands, Nick," said Firethorn seriously. "Winter has done its best to kill our occupation. Snow and ice have turned us out of The Queen's Head and made the roads too impassible for us to tour. We could do nothing but sit, shiver, and pray to God for deliverance. Our prayer," he announced, brightening, "has finally been answered."
"I disagree," said Gill.
"That is taken for granted."
"The whole notion is ridiculous."
"Let Nick be the judge of that," said Firethorn impatiently. He turned back to the book holder. "Our esteemed patron, Lord Westfield, has received an offer on our behalf that may be construed as manna from heaven."
Gill snorted. "Manna, indeed! I see it as one more snowstorm descending out of the sky to bury us up to our waists."
"I'll bury you up to the top of that ridiculous hat of yours if you dare to interrupt me again, Barnaby. Hold your tongue, man. Is that beyond your competence?"
"What exactly is this offer?" asked Nicholas, anxious to head off another spat between the two men. "If it comes from Lord Westfield, it must have some worth."
"It does, Nick."
"I beg leave to doubt that," said Hoode diffidently.
"You see?" said Gill, triumphantly. "Edmund agrees with me."
"Not entirely, Barnaby."
"Let's hear what Nick has to say," insisted Firethorn, making an effort to rein in his irritation. "And he cannot do that until he has learned the facts of the case. Though he may not be a sharer, I value his thoughts above those of anyone in the company." He distributed a punitive glare between Gill and Hoode to ensure their silence. "In brief," he continued, "the situation is this. We are invited to Silvermere, the home of Sir Michael Greenleaf, there to reside for ten days, during which time we are to stage six plays for the entertainment of Sir Michael and his guests. The fee is handsome, the welcome cordial. What more could we ask?"
"Very little, at face value," said Nicholas. "Where is Silvermere?"
"In Essex, no more than a day's ride away."
"This news is indeed excellent."
"I jumped for joy when I first heard it."
"That's understandable." He looked across at the others. "I'm cheered by these tidings. What possible objection can there be?"
"You have not yet heard the conditions," said Gill sourly.
"Yes, Nick," added Hoode. "Two of them. Tell him, Laurence."
"They're not so much conditions as trifling requests," said Firethorn, airily, trying to make light of them. "The first is that one of the plays we present must be entirely new. That's hardly an unjust stipulation. Sir Michael is paying well and expects the best. He wishes to offer some new-minted masterpiece to his guests."
"And who is to be the author of this piece?" asked Hoode.
"Who but you, Edmund?"
"There's no time to write a new play."
"Then refurbish an old one and change its title."
"That's villainy, Laurence. I'll not stoop to deception."
"Theater is one great deception, man. We practice on the minds of our spectators. How is Sir Michael Greenleaf to know that his new drama is but an aging body in a fresh suit of clothes?"
"He may not know," replied Hoode, indignantly, "but I will. It would turn my stomach to be party to such a low trick and our reputation would be sorely damaged if the truth were to come out. Did you not say that Lord Westfield might be present?"
"Yes," admitted Firethorn, "but only for a few days."
"Should he chance to be there when we perform, he'll uncover our device at once. Drunk as he usually is, our patron knows when he has seen a play before, however well we disguise it. No, Laurence, this condition cannot be met. We are bidden to Silvermere at the end of this month. I cannot conjure a play out of the air in so short a time. You must thank Sir Michael for his kind invitation but refuse it nevertheless."
"Why be so hasty?" intervened Nicholas. "I see your dilemma, Edmund, and I think it wrong to put you in such an unfair position. Our best work comes from you, it is true, but surely we can look elsewhere on this occasion. Another pen might answer our needs here."
"Not in less than a fortnight, Nick. What hand could work so speedily?"
"None that would produce a play worthy of our company, perhaps, but I'm not speaking of a piece that must be grown from seed in its author's mind. I talk of a play already written but untried in performance. It's called The Witch of Rochester."
"By heaven, you're right!" said Firethorn, slapping his thigh. "It went clear out of my mind. The play had many faults but enormous promise. That's why I gave it to you to read, Nick."
Gill was outraged. "You showed a play to a mere book holder before I cast my eyes on it? That's unforgivable, Laurence. Nicholas may do his duty behind the scenes but it is I who have to transmute the written word into life on the stage. I've never even heard of The Witch of Rochester."
"No more have I until this moment," said Hoode with mild annoyance.
"I was keeping it as a pleasant surprise for the both of you," lied Firethorn.
"You'd forgotten all about it until Nicholas jogged your elbow," observed Gill, testily. "If it can be so easily mislaid in your memory, it can hardly have a strong purchase there. Many faults, you say. I like not the sound of that. Be warned, Laurence. I'll not risk my art on some base brown-paper stuff written by a floundering author. What arrant fool puts his name to this witches' brew?"
"Egidius Pye," said Nicholas, "and he's no arrant fool."
"Nor is he a poet of any repute."
"No, Master Gill," confessed the other, "but he's a talented playwright who will learn much from seeing his work translated to the stage. Master Pye is a lawyer, an educated man with a ready wit. One of his plays saw the light of day at the Inns of Court and he has a commission to write another. He's no raw newcomer but a man whose pen we should nurture and encourage."
"That's a decision for the sharers to make," said Gill loftily. "Only an actor can make a true judgment of a play."
"I disagree," said Hoode loyally. "Nick has a keener eye than any of us."
Firethorn nodded. "Precisely why I first showed this piece of witchcraft to him. When you read a play, Barnaby, you see only the part intended for you. Because he lacks your overweening vanity, Nick can view a drama in its entirety. And I agree with him. The Witch of Rochester may cast the very spell we require."
"In time," warned Nicholas. "It needs work on it still."
"Edmund can help there. It's much easier to polish an existing play than to labor over a new one. All that Master Pye needs is the benefit of a guiding hand."
Hoode was skeptical. "If he'll accept it, Laurence."
"No question but that he will."
"Some authors tolerate no interference in their work."
"Egidius Pye will do as he's told."
"The first thing you might advise him to do is to amend his title," said Nicholas. "Since we are to perform at Silvermere, it might make sense to shift his witch from Kent to Essex, a county more seasoned in sorcery. Lose one letter, substitute two and Master Pye's work becomes The Witch of Colchester. That might appeal to Sir Michael."
"It certainly appeals to me, Nick," said Firethorn, clapping his hands. "It shall be done. There, my friends. One condition is already met."
"Not until I've read the play myself," said Hoode.
"You'll appreciate its rare quality at once, Edmund."
"That still leaves the second condition," Gill reminded him, "and it remains quite insurmountable. A dozen new plays would not make me sanction that."
"It's a bold demand," agreed Hoode.
"A suggestion," emphasized Firethorn, "not a demand. We may yet find some happy compromise. What Sir Michael Greenleaf is asking," he said to Nicholas, "is that Westfield's Men take a new apprentice into the fold."
"Madness!" decided Gill.
"We have enough mouths to feed as it is," argued Hoode.
"I'll take responsibility for feeding one more," volunteered Firethorn. "Our boys have been happy enough under my roof and they have not gone hungry with a wife like Margery to do the cooking. I think that we should consider the request."
"Who is the boy in question?" wondered Nicholas.
"His name is Davy Stratton."
"What do we know about him?"
"Precious little beyond the fact that he is eleven years old and desirous of entering this verminous profession of ours. Davy is the son of Jerome Stratton, a rich merchant and close friend of our host in Essex. Lord Westfield gave me to understand that Sir Michael would regard it as a great favor if we could accept the boy."
"And if we do not?" challenged Gill.
"The invitation to his home loses some of its warmth."
"It crumbles, Laurence. Take the lad or stay away from Essex. That's the offer. In exchange for ten days' employment, we may be saddled with a useless boy for years on end. It's a monstrous bargain and we should reject it outright."
"There's room in the company for one more apprentice."
"When we have no work for the boys already indentured? Spurn this Davy Stratton. We'll not have him thrust upon us in this way."
"Hold there, Master Gill," said Nicholas, thinking it through. "This offer may be unlooked for but it comes at an apposite time. John Tallis can no longer carry a young woman's part with any success. His voice has broken and his features coarsened."
"Don't mention Tallis to me," growled Firethorn as an old wound reopened. "I was there at the fateful moment in The Maids of Honor when the rogue betrayed us. In the person of the King of France, I asked the blushing Marie to accept the hand of the Prince of Navarre and what happens? John Tallis changes his sex there and then. His maid of honor turned into a croaking bullfrog who all but ruined the play. I could have gelded him on the spot."
Nicholas was tactful. "John is more suited to the roles of older ladies now. Nurses or grandmothers are still within his scope. A younger voice is required. I thought to have found it in Philip Robinson but he chose to remain at the Chapel Royal. It may just be that Davy Stratton is a better deputy."
"He's an imposition we can do without," said Gill vehemently.
"I incline to the same view," said Hoode. "We can manage without a new boy."
"When he brings employment in his wake?" asked Firethorn. "Would you kiss away ten days' work in a private house? Think of the fee we would forfeit and of the new friends we might make for our art. Remember that this Jerome Stratton is a wealthy merchant, eager to place his son among us. We can set a high price on such eagerness. There's ready profit in this for Westfield's Men."
"Only if the boy is an apt pupil," said Hoode.
"I'm sure that he will be, Edmund." His voice took on a sharper edge. "Are you not vexed by this enforced idleness? Do you not fear that your art will desert you? A moment ago, Nick mentioned the Chapel Royal. Does it not gall you that boy actors perform each day at Blackfriars while we languish here?"
"Of course, Laurence."
"Do you feel no sense of injustice that the indoor playhouses thrive while those of us at the mercy of the elements are thrown out of work?"
"It wounds me to the quick."
"Then do something about it. Seize this offer with both hands. Sir Michael Greenleaf is our host but there may be some among his guests who will also see fit to employ us in time. Ten days in Essex may gain us tempting invitations elsewhere."
"That's true," conceded Hoode, warming to the idea.
Gill was unconvinced. "It still does not solve the problem of an unwanted boy," he said testily. "I refuse to let a complete stranger foist his son upon us."
Excerpted from The Devil's Apprentice by Edward Marston. Copyright © 2001 by Edward Marston. Excerpted by permission.