London is under siege by the Black Plague, closing its theaters and losing its frightened citizens to the countryside. Lord Westfield's Men decide upon the relative safety of the road and a tour of the North. Before they can pack up and depart, one player in the troupe is murdered.
As they travel, the company of players managed by its bookholder, Nicholas Bracewell, learns that their arch-rivals, Banbury's Men, have been pirating their best works. Hoping to shake off Banbury's Men, actor Lawrence Firethorn eventually leads his troupe to York where all is revealed in a thrilling performance.
Originally published in the U.S. in 1990 by St. Martin's Press, The Trip to Jerusalem is the third Nicholas Bracewell Elizabethan mystery following The Queen's Head and The Merry Devils. The most recent Bracewell from St. Martin's Press is The Wanton Angel (0-312-24116-X)
About the Author
EDWARD MARSTON was born and brought up in South Wales. A full-time writer for over thirty years, he has worked in radio, film, television and the theatre. Prolific and highly successful, he is equally at home writing children's books or literary criticism, plays or biographies and the settings for his crime novels range from the world of professional golf to the compilation of the Domesday Survey. He is also a former Chairman of the Crime Writers Association.
Read an Excerpt
The Trip to Jerusalem
By Edward Marston
Poisoned Pen PressCopyright © 1990 Edward Marston
All right reserved.
Chapter OneEnemies surrounded them. Though theatre flourished in London as never before, bestowing vivid entertainment upon the nation's capital and earning daily ovations from large audiences, its practitioners were under constant threat. Acting was a perilous enterprise. Players had to walk a tightrope between fame and oblivion—with no net to soften their fall. They faced the official disapproval of the Lord Mayor and the civic worthies, and endured the outright hostility of religious leaders, who spied the hand of the Devil at work on the stage, and the hand of the lecher, the harlot and the pickpocket moving with licensed freedom among the spectators. Voices of protest were raised on all sides.
Nor could the acclaim of the onlookers be taken for granted. The public was a fickle master. Those who served it with their art were obliged to perform plays that were in vogue, in a manner that was acceptable to their patrons. Indifference was a menace. So indeed were the other theatrical companies. Naked competition was rife. Players could be poached and plays could be pirated. War could be waged between the different troupes in ways that ranged from the subtle to the blatant.
Those who survived all this could still be brought low by fire or by fighting. Tobacco smokers had more than once ignited the overhanging thatch in the theatres, and there was always the risk that drunken spectators would start an affray. If human intervention did not harm or hamper a performance, then bad weather might. Arenas that were open to the sky were vulnerable to each wind that blew and each drop of rain that fell. God in his wisdom washed away countless stabs at theatrical immortality.
But the silent enemy was the worst.
It came from nowhere and moved among its prey with easy familiarity. It showed no respect for age, rank or sex and touched its victims with fond impartiality, like an infected whore passing on her disease in a warm embrace. Nothing could withstand its power and nobody could divine the secret of that power. It could climb mountains, swim across oceans, seep through walls and bring down the most well-fortified bastions. Its corruption was universal. Every man, woman and child on the face of the earth was at its mercy.
Here was the final enemy. Doom itself.
Lawrence Firethorn spoke for the whole profession.
'A plague on this plague!'
'It will rob us of our livelihood,' said Gill.
'If not of our lives,' added Hoode.
'God's blood!' said Firethorn, pounding the table with his fist. 'What a damnable trade we follow. There are daggers waiting to stab us at every turn and if we avoid their points, then here comes the sharpest axe in Christendom to chop off our heads.'
'It is a judgement,' said Hoode mournfully.
'We might yet be spared,' said Gill, trying to inject a halfhearted note of optimism. 'Plague deaths have not yet reached the required number per week.'
'They will, Barnaby,' said Firethorn grimly. 'This hot weather will soon begin to unpeople the city. We must look misfortune in the eye, gentlemen, and foreswear all false hopes. 'Tis the only sensible course. This latest visitation will close every theatre in London and put our work to sleep for the whole summer. There's but one remedy.'
'Such a bitter medicine to take,' said Hoode.
Barnaby Gill let out a sigh as deep as the Thames.
The three men were sitting over cups of sack in the taproom of the Queen's Head in Gracechurch Street, the inn which was the regular venue for performances by Lord Westfield's Men, one of the leading companies in the city. Lawrence Firethorn, Barnaby Gill and Edmund Hoode were all sharers, ranked players who were named in the royal patent for the company and who took the major roles in its wide repertoire. Westfield's Men had other sharers but company policy was effectively controlled by this trio. Such, at least, was the theory. In practice, it was the ebullient and dominating figure of Lawrence Firethorn who generally held sway, allowing his two colleagues the illusion of authority when they were, in fact, simply ratifying his decisions. He bulked large.
'Gentlemen,' he announced bravely, 'we must not be crushed by fate or curbed by circumstance. Let us make virtue of necessity here.'
'Virtue, indeed!' Gill was sardonic.
'Show it me, Lawrence,' said the other. 'Where is the virtue in trailing ourselves around the country to spend our talents in front of ungrateful bumpkins? Poor plays for poor audiences in poor places will make our purses the poorest of all.'
'Westfield's Men never consort with poverty,' said Firethorn, wagging an admonitory finger. 'However humble our theatre, our work will be rich and fulfilling. Be the audience made up of unlettered fools, they will yet have a banquet of words set before them.' His chest swelled with pride. 'In all conscience, sir, I could never demean myself by giving a poor performance!'
'Opinion may differ on that.'
'How say you, Barnaby?'
'Let it pass.'
'Do you impugn my work, sir?'
'I would lack the voice.'
'It is not the only deficiency in your senses.'
'Your sight, sir. Remember the holy book. Before you dispraise me, first cast out the mote in your own eye.'
'Give me the meaning.'
'Put your own art in repair.'
'It is not needful,' said Gill, nostrils flaring. 'My public is all too cognisant of my genius.'
'Then why conceal it from your fellow-players?'
The row blazed merrily and it took Edmund Hoode some minutes before he could calm down both parties. It was an all too familiar task for him. Professional jealousy was at the root of the relationship between Firethorn and Gill. Each had remarkable individual talents and their combined effect was quite dazzling. Most of the success enjoyed by Westfield's Men was due to the interplay of this unrivalled pair and yet they could not reach harmony offstage. They fought with different weapons. Firethorn used a verbal broadsword that whistled through the air as he swished it about while Gill favoured a poniard whose slender blade could slide in between the ribs. When argument was at its height, the former was all towering rage and bristling eyebrow where the latter opted for quivering indignation and pursed lips.
Edmund Hoode adopted a conciliatory tone.
'Gentlemen, gentlemen, you do each other a grave disservice. We are all partners in this business. As God's my witness, we have foes enough to contend with at this troublesome time. Let not headstrong words create more dissension. Desist, sirs. Be friends once more.'
The combatants took refuge in their drinks. Hoode was grateful that he had checked the quarrel before it got to the point where Gill always hurled accusations of unbridled tyranny at Firethorn who, in turn, retaliated by pouring contempt on the other's predilection for young boys with pretty faces and firm bodies. An uneasy silence hovered over the three men. Hoode eventually broke it.
'I have no stomach for touring in the provinces.'
'Beggars cannot be choosers,' said Gill.
'In my case, they can. I'd as lief stay in London and risk the plague as walk at the cart's tail halfway across England. There's no profit in that.'
'And even less in the city,' argued Firethorn. 'How will you live when your occupation is gone? You may be a magician with words, Edmund, but you cannot conjure money out of thin air.'
'I will sell my verses.'
'Your penury's assured,' said Gill maliciously.
'There are those who will buy.'
'More fool them.'
Lawrence Firethorn gave an understanding chuckle.
'I see the truth of it, Edmund. There is only one reason that could make you linger here to taste the misery of certain starvation. Why, man, you are in love!'
'Leave off these jests.'
'See how his cheeks colour, Barnaby?'
'You have hit the mark, Lawrence.'
'He scorns his fellows so that he may lodge his bauble in a tundish. While we tread the road in search of custom, he would be bed-pressing like a lusty bridegroom.' Firethorn gave his colleague a teasing nudge. 'Who is this fair creature, Edmund? If she can tempt you from your calling, she must have charms beyond compare. Tell us, dear heart. What is her name?'
Hoode gave a dismissive shrug. In matters of love, he had learned never to confide in Lawrence Firethorn, still less in Barnaby Gill. The one was a rampant adulterer who could seduce the purest maid while the other had nothing but contempt for the entire female sex. Edmund Hoode kept his own counsel. A tall, slim, pale, clean-shaven man in his thirties, he was an actor-playwright with the company who had somehow resisted the coarsening effects of such an unstable life. He was an irredeemable romantic for whom the pains of courtship were a higher form of pleasure and he was not deterred by the fact that his entanglements almost invariably fell short of consummation. His latest infatuation was writ large upon his face and he lowered his head before the mocking scrutiny of his companions.
Lawrence Firethorn was built of sterner stuff, a barrel-chested man of medium height who exuded power and personality, and whose wavy black hair, pointed beard and handsome features were a frontal assault on womanhood. Gill was older, shorter, stouter and attired with a more fastidious care. Morose and self-involved offstage, he was the most superb comedian upon it and his wicked grin transformed an ugly man into one with immense appeal.
Hoode was torn between his passion and his plays.
'Westfield's Men could well spare me.'
'Gladly,' said the waspish Gill.
'I might join you later in the tour.'
'Come, Edmund,' said Firethorn, clapping him on the shoulder. 'No more talk of desertion. We are dumb idiots without our poet to put words into our mouths. You'll travel with us because we love you.'
'My heart is elsewhere.'
'And because we need you, sweet friend.'
'Go forth without me.'
'And because you are contracted to us.'
Firethorn's curt reminder terminated the dispute. Being a sharer in the company imposed certain legal responsibilities upon Hoode. His freedom of action was limited. He blenched as yet another burgeoning romance withered on the stem.
Lawrence Firethorn sought to offer consolation.
'Courage, man!' he urged. 'Do not sit there like a lovesick shepherd. Consider what lies ahead. You forfeit one conquest in order to make others. Country girls were born for copulation. Unbutton at will. You can fornicate across seven counties until your pizzle turns blue and cries "Amen to that!" Hark ye, Edmund.' Firethorn clapped his other shoulder. 'Westfield's Men are not being driven out of London. We are journeying to paradise!'
'Who is to be our serpent?' said Gill.
* * *
Nicholas Bracewell stood in his accustomed place behind the stage and controlled the performance with his quiet authority. As the company's book holder, he was a key figure in its affairs, prompting and stage managing every play which was mounted as well as supervising rehearsals and helping with the dozens of other tasks that were thrown up. A tall, imposing, muscular man, he had a face of seasoned oak that was set off by long fair hair and a Viking beard. Striking to the eye, he could yet become completely invisible during a performance, an unseen presence in the shadows whose influence was decisive and who pulled all the strings like a master puppeteer.
The play which was delighting the audience at the Queen's Head that afternoon was The Constant Lover, a gentle comedy about the problems of fidelity. It had become a favourite piece and Westfield's Men had offered it several times already. But it had never been staged in quite this way before.
'What now, Master Bracewell?'
'The silver chalice, George.'
'Upon the table?'
'Present it to the King.'
'When is the table to be set?'
'For the next scene.'
'The silver chalice again?'
'The gold goblet.'
George Dart did not usually get quite so flustered. He was an assistant stagekeeper and occasionally got pressed into service as a non-speaking extra. His duties in The Constant Lover were light and undemanding yet he was flummoxed before the end of Act One. It was quite understandable. Everyone in the company knew that this might be their last appearance in London for a long time and, in some cases, their last appearance upon any stage. Touring would inflict economies on the company. Its size would be reduced and its weekly wages would shrink. All the sharers would take to the road but the hired men would have to be carefully sifted. George Dart was one of them. Like his fellows, he was in a state of hysteria lest he be rejected, knowing full well that those discarded might fall by the wayside completely. He therefore played his tiny role in The Constant Lover with a kind of confused urgency, mystified as to what came next yet eager to give of his best.
Nicholas Bracewell at once stilled the general panic and made allowances for it. Some of the actors out there were, literally, fighting for their lives. In striving too hard to do well, they often marred their chances. Nicholas had great sympathy for them all but his first duty was to the audience and he concentrated on keeping the play running as smoothly as possible. It meant that he had to adjudicate at several running duels.
'Did you ever see such wanton cruelty, Nick?'
'Stand by for your next entrance.'
'He cut my finest speech.'
'You ruined two of his.'
'Gabriel is trying to savage my performance.'
'I believe he is only replying in kind.'
'The man has no honour.'
'Teach him some by example.'
'I think that you take his side.'
'No, Christopher. My concern is for the play itself.'
'Then why let Gabriel disfigure it?'
'You have been his able lieutenant in the business this past half-hour. It is to your mutual discredit.'
'I am the better player, Nick.'
'Your cue is at hand.'
'Speak up for me.'
'Go forth and speak for yourself.'
Christopher Millfield surged back out onstage to continue his battle with Gabriel Hawkes. Both were fine actors who could carry off a wide range of supporting roles with assurance and each was a real asset to the company. But there would not be room for the two of them in the touring party. One had to give way to the other. They had never liked each other but, in all previous plays, their personal antipathy had been subdued for the sake of a common cause. Threatened with unemployment, they fell back on a raw hostility that was totally in keeping with the characters they were playing but which made for some rather alarming departures from the text.
Nicholas watched it all with a mixture of surprise and distaste. He might have expected such behaviour from Christopher Millfield, and arrogant and impulsive young man who was quick to take offence where none was intended. Gabriel Hawkes was a very different person, an unassuming and almost shy character who was ill at ease with the ribald banter of the players and who kept himself apart from the general throng. Nicholas admired the talents of both men but had much more affection for Hawkes. On a long and arduous tour, his soft-edged presence would be much more acceptable than Millfield's brashness.
Yet he was giving the worst possible account of himself. In descending to open combat, Hawkes was doing his cause irreparable harm. To the amusement of the audience—but the detriment of the play—the two of them were grappling like wrestlers, throwing each other to the ground with blank verse before pummelling away unmercifully with rhyming couplets.
Then, suddenly, it was all over.
Gabriel Hawkes seemed to concede defeat. He sagged visibly and the spirit went out of his defiance. He let Christopher Millfield walk all over him and could not even offer a token resistance. It was painful to watch.
Most of the onlookers were unaware of the intense personal conflict which had been going on in front of them. Hawkes and Millfield did not have leading parts and they melted into the scenery whenever Lawrence Firethorn came onstage. He was a true King in every sense and his regal brilliance outshone everything else in view, including the hilarious exploits of Barnaby Gill as a decrepit suitor. Firethorn's rule was paramount.
He led out the company to bask in the applause that echoed around the inn yard where they had set up their makeshift stage. Westfield's Men were due to play at the Queen's Head the following week but nobody believed that the performance would take place. The plague was closing in remorselessly. Spectators who would be deprived of entertainment for long months showed their appreciation of players who would be exiled from the city. It was a joyous yet rather wistful occasion.
Excerpted from The Trip to Jerusalem by Edward Marston Copyright © 1990 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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