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One play, two murders and a grievous miscarriage of justice
After a calamitous performance and the death of one of their own, Lord Westfield's Men are more than despondent. So when the mysterious Simon Chaloner follows Nicholas Bracewell home with an offer of a new play, anonymously penned, his offer seems too good to refuse. It is a story of a simple death used to conceal a greater treachery, perhaps even treason.
But they could never have known how dangerous one play could be. Or how telling the tale of a murdered mathematician might put them all in jeopardy. It is up to Nick to once more save the acting troupe from disaster, to reveal the traitor that threatens both Queen and country, and to prove who really killed The Roaring Boy.
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Death came calling at a most inconvenient hour and in a singularly inappropriate place. The play being performed that afternoon, before an attentive audience in the yard of the Queen's Head, was still deep in Act Three when its main character was summarily excised from the dramatis personae. It was an eerie sensation. Out went Alonso, the exiled Duke of Genoa: in came panic and confusion among Westfield's Men. Each actor who stormed offstage brought fresh protest into the tiring-house.
'Ben Skeat has fallen sick.'
'The man is drunk.'
'I could get no sound from him.'
'His memory has crumbled with age.'
'Fright has seized him.'
'Sorcery. Ben is plainly bewitched.'
Nicholas Bracewell, the company's book holder, had only a limited view of the actor from his station behind the scenes but he could see enough to sense a crisis. In the habit of a friar, Ben Skeat sat silent and motionless in his chair. Instead of dominating the scene as the play required, he was completely detached from it. Nicholas felt a stab of pain as he realised what must have happened. It gave him no satisfaction to be able to contradict the other diagnoses of Duke Alonso's condition. Ben Skeat was the oldest and most experienced member of the troupe, known for his prodigious feats of memory and for his total reliability. There was no chance that he was ill,drunk, asleep or lost for words. Still less had he taken leave of his senses or become spellbound.
Only one explanation remained and it gave Nicholas another sharp pang. Skeat was an unsung hero of Westfield's Men. A versatile and talented actor, he was imbued with a deep love of the theatre, steeped in its traditions and wholly committed to his volatile profession. The irony was that he had a rare leading role in The Corrupt Bargain. Skeat's more usual place was in the second rank of players where he habitually offered rock-solid support as a loyal earl, a worthy archbishop, a fearless judge, a conscientious seneschal or a white-bearded sage. He exuded a benevolence that invariably got him cast as a symbol of goodness.
Now, for once, he was being accused of downright evil.
'He is thwarting me!' said Barnaby Gill as he flounced into the tiring-house in the costume of a court jester. 'There is wanton malice at work here. Ben Skeat is determined to ruin my performance.'
'Not by design,' said Nicholas.
'I gave him his cue, he merely stared at me.'
'Ben had no choice in the matter.'
'I would expect you to take his side,' said Gill with a characteristic snort. 'It was on your foolish advice that he was given the role in the first place. And what does the idiot do? He dried up on me. I wait for his twenty-line speech and he stays hiding under his cowl.' He stamped a peevish foot. 'I'll not abide it, Nicholas! His conduct is unforgivable. Had I not delivered a speech extempore to cover the gap in nature, the play would have fallen apart.'
Nicholas nodded. 'You must do that office again.'
'Ben Skeat has spoken his last line.'
'Do not look to me to rescue him.'
'I look to all of you.'
'He has passed away,' said Nicholas, quietly.
'What? howled Gill. 'While I was acting with him! That is an insult that cannot be borne. I am mortified.'
His exclamation sent the rest of the company into a state of wild alarm and it was all Nicholas could do to calm them down so that the commotion would not be heard by the spectators. The book holder confided the awful truth in a whisper. Ben Skeat was dead. Cold terror spread quickly. Superstitious by nature, the actors turned the tiring-house into a Bedlam of speculation.
'We shall be chased off the stage.'
'This is a judgment on us.'
'Someone has poisoned him to bring us down.'
'I spy a devilish plot here.'
'There is a murderer in our midst.'
'Who will be his next victim?'
'Abandon the play!'
'Take to your heels?
'Run for your lives!'
'Stop!' ordered Nicholas, planting his burly frame before the exit and holding out his arms. 'Ben Skeat has died but it may well be by natural means. Would you desert him at a time when he most needs you? Will you behave like cowards when valour is in request? Will you inflict such a dark stain on the reputation of Westfield's Men?' He pointed a finger at the makeshift stage behind the curtains. 'The play must go on.'
Gill was distraught. 'How can we act with a corpse?'
'You have already taught us the way,' soothed the book holder. 'When no words came from Duke Alonso, you provided your own. Listen carefully and you will hear that both the Provost and Count Emilio follow your example.'
As they strained their ears, the company became aware that a small miracle was taking place out there in the sunshine. With its central character reduced to the role of a stage property, the play was somehow continuing on its way. Edmund Hoode, the company's actor-playwright, was in somnolent vein as a kind Provost who escorts the disguised Duke to the condemned cell so that they may comfort the hapless Emilio. In the latter role, Owen Elias was at his best, suffering in the shadow of the headsman's axe while busily plundering all the speeches for which Ben Skeat no longer had a use.
Edmund Hoode was not to be outdone. He had laboured long and hard over The Corrupt Bargain. The sudden departure of its main character was not going to disable his play as long as he had breath in his body to rescue it. Renowned for his comedies, Hoode had tackled a more tragic theme in his latest offering. The Corrupt Bargain was set in Genoa. The exiled Duke Alonso returns in disguise to seize power from his tyrannical younger brother, Don Pedro. Injustice runs riot in his unhappy land. Alonso is particularly struck by the plight of a devoted brother and sister, Emilio and Bianca.
Wrongly accused of a crime he did not commit, the brave Count Emilio is sentenced to death. The beautiful Bianca goes to Don Pedro to plead for her brother's release. The tyrant is consumed with such a powerful lust for her that he offers her a corrupt bargain. If she consents to give her body to him, her brother will be set free. Bianca is duly horrified by the choice confronting her. She must lose either her virginity or her brother. Which is the more precious? While his beloved sister agonises over her predicament, Emilio spends anguished hours in prison. When Alonso calls upon him in the guise of a friar, he tries to offer a modicum of comfort to the prisoner.
Owen Elias was not going to waste the most telling speech in the scene. Leaning in close to the lifeless Ben Skeat, he cocked an ear and wrinkled his brow.
'What says my holy father?' he asked.
Edmund Hoode seized gratefully on the cue. Bending over the hooded figure, he pretended to listen to the friar's words of wisdom before relaying them to the condemned man.
Hearken to his advice. Subdue this groundless fear of death's approach And fast embrace him as your dearest friend. You run from him who can your pain remove, Your sins redeem, your sister's honour save, And all the rigours of this woeful world Lift from your back. The end of life is but The start of joy. Speak thus to welcome death. "Light my way to heaven with burning torch And take me from this hell of durance vile."
The Provost was not merely recovering words from beyond the grave, he was giving the rest of the company invaluable time to consider how to proceed. In the version of The Corrupt Bargain that they had rehearsed that morning, Duke Alonso went on to overthrow his brother, restore good government, pluck Emilio from the block itself and marry the grateful Bianca. Such a resolution was now impossible. A cruel tyrant could not be ousted by a dead friar.
Frantic rewriting was needed and Nicholas Bracewell rose to the occasion with customary speed. Since he held the only complete copy of the play, he knew the piece almost as well as its author and saw the advantage of having Edmund Hoode in a role where he might help to pilot them all home. Sudden decisions were made with an instinctive skill.
'Take note,' said Nicholas to the remainder of the cast. 'The Provost will banish the usurper, Don Pedro. The new Duke will be Count Emilio. We lose Alonso but his place in the action will be taken by the Jester. Bianca will marry the Provost.'
The firmness of his voice instilled confidence into his fellows and most of them were content to obey. There was one notable exception.
'This is lunacy, Nicholas,' complained Barnaby Gill.
'It is our only hope of salvation.'
'Then we are doomed. I am a court jester not a friar.'
'Could you not be both?' argued Nicholas. 'To aid the company in its hour of need, could you not be two or twenty characters if it preserve our good standing?'
'I have my own reputation to consider.'
It is difficult to stand on one's dignity while wearing a cap and bells. When Barnaby Gill folded his arms and lifted a defiant chin, he simply appeared ridiculous. He was Petulance incarnate. His bells jingled in mockery.
'Think of Ben Skeat,' urged Nicholas.
Gill was unmoved. 'Did he think of me when he went to his Maker in the middle of my performance?'
'We have a duty to our audience.'
'That duty is to give them The Corrupt Bargain, not some mauled and tattered version of it.'
'Our patron is here today.'
'Then we must not abuse him with this profanity.'
'Would you rather send him away with two acts of the piece yet unplayed?' said Nicholas. 'Lord Westfield would be affronted, his companions would be disappointed and the rest of the spectators will demand their money back. Is that your wish?' His final point was his most persuasive. 'Master Firethorn would never forgive you.'
'What care I?' retorted Gill. 'It is because of him that we are in this parlous state!'
But his resistance was now only token. The name of Lawrence Firethorn had brought him to heel. Firethorn was the company's actor-manager and acknowledged star, the man for whom the role of Duke Alonso had been specifically written. Ben Skeat had only been elevated to the part because Lawrence Firethorn was indisposed. Their absent leader would pour molten contempt upon them if they dared to abandon a play in mid-performance, and the chief target of his attack would be the reluctant court jester. Barnaby Gill was Firethorn's greatest rival, a brilliant clown who felt that his own art was vastly superior to that of any other player and that he himself was chiefly responsible for the continued success of Westfield's Men. He could not permit himself to be seen as the architect of their downfall.
There was a more tempting consideration. With Lawrence Firethorn off the stage, Gill's ascendancy would go unchallenged. He could rule the roost like a Chanticleer. Improvising scenes in order to cover the untimely death of Duke Alonso would place an immense burden on him but it was one he would cheerfully bear in view of the potential reward. Instead of merely stealing the occasional scene as the court jester, he could now pillage the whole play.
'Take your positions,' said Nicholas.
Act Three was coming to a close as the Provost offered a final crumb of comfort to Count Emilio. Both men were due to leave the prison cell in the company of the exiled Duke but the latter was clearly in no position to join them. Ben Skeat's removal from the action was the main priority and Nicholas Bracewell took the matter into his own hands.
'Dick Honeydew,' he called.
'Yes?' said the boy apprentice.
'We will have your lament now.'
'But I do not sing it for two more scenes.'
'It is needed presently.'
'As you wish.'
'Sing loud and clear, Dick.'
'I will do my best.'
The boy apprentice cleared his throat and tried to stop his hands from trembling. In a dark wig and a brocade gown heavily ornamented with jewels, Richard Honeydew was a most winsome Bianca. Nicholas sent word up to the balcony overhead where Peter Digby and his consort of musicians waited to introduce the next scene with a fanfare. On the instructions of the book holder, the trumpets were replaced by the strains of a lute. Bianca stepped gracefully on to the stage with Nicholas himself in attendance. He crossed to the inert figure of Duke Alonso and gave an indulgent smile.
Our holy friar sleeps softly like a child.
I'll straight convey him to a proper bed.
Ben Skeat was lifted bodily and taken swiftly away. His exit was covered by a tearful Bianca, who wept bitterly into a handkerchief before singing a lament to the accompaniment of the lute. Caught up in the emotion of the moment, the audience soon forgot the strange behaviour of the friar but it continued to exercise his fellows behind the scenes.
Nicholas lay the corpse down in the tiring-house.
'Whatever has happened to him?' wailed Edmund Hoode.
'He is gone,' said Owen Elias sadly. 'I saw his eyes flicker, then it was all over. Poor Ben!'
Hoode shuddered. 'Dead? What a comment on my play!'
'It may yet be saved, Edmund,' said Nicholas.
He acquainted the newcomers with the changes he had made in the action of the piece, drawing a groan of protest from the author. Owen Elias took a more practical view. If the afternoon were not to end in chaos, then the amended version of The Corrupt Bargain had to be played to the hilt. Duke Alonso had evidently gone into permanent exile.
Nicholas ordered the participants in the next scene to stand by, then signalled their entrance as Bianca swept off to sympathetic applause. The villainous Don Pedro was now onstage for five minutes or more with his cohorts. Temporary relief was offered. As in most of his plays, Hoode rested the central character in Act Four so that his protagonist could burst back into the actionrestored and refreshedin the final act. Nicholas Bracewell took advantage of the lull.
He carried Ben Skeat to a quiet corner and laid him gently on the floor. As he pushed back the hood, he saw the unmistakable signs of death. The mouth was slack, the skin white, the eyes stared sightlessly. No breath stirred, no pulse could be felt. An old man had passed peacefully away among his fellows at the very height of his career.
It grieved Nicholas that he was unable to treat the corpse with all due reverence but the play had prior claims. Raising the body up a few inches, he carefully divested it of the friar's habit so that the disguise could be used by the court jester. He then covered Skeat with a cloak and looked up at the sorrowful faces all around him.
'Play on, sirs. It is what Ben would have wanted.'
'We owe it to him,' agreed Owen Elias.
'But my work is being mangled!' hissed Edmund Hoode.
'Would you rather call a halt to the proceedings?'
Nicholas threw down a challenge that he knew would be ignored. Unlike Barnaby Gill, the playwright would never put selfish concerns before the good of the company. Survival was the order of the day and Hoode recognised that. It was time to unite with his fellows to bring The Corrupt Bargain safely into port, even if the harbour was not the one that the author had originally intended.
'Tell us what to do, Nick,' he said. 'Guide us through.'
'Stand close and hear me out.'
Snatching up the prompt book once more, Nicholas flicked through the pages and reiterated his decisions. Westfield's Men listened intently though their eyes occasionally strayed to the supine figure of their colleague in the corner. Ben Skeat had spent a lifetime responding to the various crises that were thrown up regularly by a capricious profession. It fell to them to meet this dire emergency with the courage and imagination that the old actor would have shown.
Two plays now ran side by side. What the audience saw was an attenuated version of The Corrupt Bargain but the drama taking place behind the scenes was much more intense. Actors rehearsed new roles in a matter of seconds. Music was changed, entrances were altered, costumes were reassigned. George Dart, the smallest and most lowly of the assistant stagekeepers, was in a state of near-hysteria as the scenic devices he was due to move were given fresh locations. He soon had no idea what scene, what act, and what play they were engaged in, and simply hung on the commands of Nicholas Bracewell, praying that he would come through the ordeal without earning himself a sound beating.
Excerpted from The Roaring Boy by Edward Marston. Copyright © 1995 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.