Alas, it was to be Will’s last taste of beer. A tavern brawl left him dead – but not before he gasped for Nicholas to find his fast-fleeting, red-bearded murderer and administer a just revenge.
Yet finding Will’s murderer in London’s dark, crowded streets was a seemingly impossible task – not to mention the fact that Lord Westfield’s Men were just commanded to appear at the court of Elizabeth I – an honour one dare not refuse. . .
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The Queen's Head
By Edward Marston
Poisoned Pen PressCopyright © 2000 Edward Marston
All right reserved.
Chapter OneThe queen's head swung gently to and fro in the light breeze. It was an arresting sight. Wearing a coronet and pearls in red hair that was a mass of tight curls, she had a pale, distinguished face with a high forehead, fine nose and full lips. Her regal beauty had an ageless quality that was enhanced by a remarkable pair of eyes. Dark, shrewd and watchful, they managed to combine authority with femininity and—when the sun hit them at a certain angle—they even hinted at roguishness. Nobody who met her imperious gaze could fail to recognize her as Elizabeth Tudor, Queen of England.
Bright colours had been used on the inn sign. Enough of the neck and shoulders was included to show that she was dressed in the Spanish fashion, with a round, stiff-laced collar above a dark bodice fitted with satin sleeves which were richly decorated with ribbons, pearls and gems. A veritable waterfall of pearls flowed from her neck and threatened to cascade down from the timber on which they were painted. The same opulence shone with vivid effect on the reverse side of the sign. Royalty was at its most resplendent.
London was the biggest, busiest and most boisterous city in Europe, a thriving community which had grown up in the serpentine twists of the River Thames and which was already thrusting out beyond its boundary walls. Poverty and wealth, stench and sweetness, anarchy and order, misery and magnificence were all elements in the city's daily life. From her high eminence in Gracechurch Street, the queen's head saw and heard everything that was going on in her beloved capital.
'Ned, that gown will need a stitch or two.'
'You can sweep the stage now, Thomas.'
'The broom is ready in my hand, Master Bracewell.'
'George, fetch the rushes.'
'Where are they?'
'Where you will find them, lad. About it straight.'
'It was not our fault, Nicholas.'
'We must speak about that funeral march.'
'Our cue was given too early.'
'That did not matter. It was the wrong music.'
Nicholas Bracewell stood in the courtyard of The Queen's Head and took charge of the proceedings. Noon had just brought the morning's rehearsal to a close. The afternoon performance now loomed large and it threw the whole company into the usual state of panic. While everyone else was bickering, complaining, memorizing elusive lines, working on last minute repairs or dashing needlessly about, Nicholas was concentrating on the multifarious jobs that had to be done before the play could be offered to its audience. He was an island of calm in a sea of hysteria.
'I must protest most strongly!'
'It was only a rehearsal, Master Bartholomew.'
'But, Nicholas, my play was mangled!'
'I'm sure it will be far better in performance.'
'They ruined my poetry and cut my finest scene.'
'That is not quite true, Master Bartholomew.,
'It's an outrage!'
The book holder was an important member of any company but, in the case of Lord Westfield's Men, he had become absolutely crucial to the enterprise. Nicholas Bracewell was so able and resourceful at the job that it expanded all the time to include new responsibilities. Not only did he prompt and stage manage every performance from the one complete copy that existed of a play, he also supervised rehearsals, helped to train the apprentices, dealt with the musicians, cajoled the stagekeepers, advised on the making of costumes or properties, and negotiated for a play's licence with the Master of the Revels.
His easy politeness and diplomatic skills had earned him another role-that of pacifying irate authors. They did not get any more irate than Master Roger Bartholomew.
'Did you hear me, Nicholas?'
'Yes, I did.'
'You did sell your play to the company.'
'That does not give Lord Westfield's Men the right to debase by work!' shrieked the other, quivering with indignation. 'In the last act, your voice was heard most often. I did not write those speeches to be spoken by a mere prompter!'
Nicholas forgave him the insult and replied with an understanding smile. Words uttered in the heat of the moment were normal fare in the world of theatre and he paid no heed to them. Putting a hand on the author's shoulder, he adopted a soothing tone.
'It's an excellent play, Master Bartholomew.'
'How are the spectators to know that?'
'It will all be very different this afternoon.'
'I have been Patience itself,' retorted the aggrieved poet, 'but I'll be silent no longer. My error lay in believing that Lawrence Firethorn was a good actor.'
'He's a great actor,' said Nicholas loyally. 'He holds over fifty parts in his head.'
'The pity of it is that King Richard is not one of them!'
'I will speak with him presently.'
'That's not possible.'
'Take me to him, Nicholas.'
'Out of the question.'
'I wish to resolve this matter with him.'
'I demand it!'
But the howled demand went unsatisfied. Conscious of the disturbance that the author was creating, Nicholas decided to get him away from the courtyard. Before he knew what was happening, Roger Bartholomew was ushered firmly into a private room, lowered into a seat and served with a pint of sack. Nicholas, meanwhile, poured words of praise and consolation into his ear, slowly subduing him and deflecting him from his intended course of action.
Lawrence Firethorn was the manager, chief sharer and leading actor with Lord Westfield's Men. His book holder was not shielding him from an encounter with a disappointed author. Rather was he protecting the latter from an experience that would scar his soul and bring his career in the theatre to a premature conclusion. Roger Bartholomew might be seething with righteous anger but he was no match for the tempest that was Lawrence Firethorn. At all costs, he had to be spared that. Nicholas had seen much stronger characters destroyed by a man who could explode like a powder keg at the slightest criticism of his art. It was distressing to watch.
Allowances had to be made for the fact that Master Roger Bartholomew was a novice, lately come from Oxford, where his tutors held a high opinion of him and where his poetry had won many plaudits. He was clever, if arrogant, and sufficiently well-versed in the drama to be able to craft a play of some competence. The Tragical History of Richard the Lionheart had promise and even some technical merit. What it lacked in finesse, it made up for in simple integrity. It was overwritten in some parts and under-written in others but it was somehow held together by its patriotic impulse.
London was hungry for new plays and the companies were always in search of them. Lawrence Firethorn had accepted the apprentice work because it offered him a superb central role that he could tailor to suit his unique talents. It might be a play that smouldered without ever bursting into flame but it could still entertain an audience for a couple of hours and it would not disgrace the growing reputation of Lord Westfield's Men.
'I expected so much more,' confided the author as the drink turned his fury into wistfulness. 'I had hopes, Nicholas.'
'They'll not be dashed.'
'I felt so betrayed as I sat there this morning.'
'Rehearsals often deceive.'
'Where is my play!'
It was a cry from the heart and Nicholas was touched. Like others before him, Roger Bartholomew was learning the awful truth that an author did not occupy the exalted position that he imagined. Lord Westfield's Men, in fact, consigned him to a fairly humble station. The young Oxford scholar had been paid five pounds for his play and he had seen King Richard make his first entrance in a cloak that cost ten times that amount. It was galling.
Nicholas softened the blow with kind words as best he could, but there was something that could not be concealed from the wilting author. Lawrence Firethorn never regarded a play as an expression of poetic genius. He viewed it merely as a scaffold on which he could shout and strut and dazzle his public. It was his conviction that an audience came solely to see him act and not to watch an author write.
'What am I to do, Nicholas?' pleaded Bartholomew.
'Bear with us.'
'I'll be mocked by everyone.'
After giving what reassurance he could, the book holder left him staring into the remains of his sack and wishing that he had never left the University. They had taken him seriously there. The groves of academe had nurtured a tender plant which could not survive in the scorching heat of the playhouse.
Nicholas, meanwhile, hurried back to the yard where the preparations continued apace. The stage was a rectangle of trestles that jutted out into the middle of the yard from one wall. Green rushes, mixed with aromatic herbs, had been strewn over the stage to do battle with the stink of horse dung from the nearby stables. When the audience pressed around the acting area, there would be the competing smells of bad breath, beer, tobacco, garlic, mould, tallow and stale sweat to keep at bay. Nicholas observed that servingmen were perfuming large ewers in the shadows so that spectators would have somewhere to relieve themselves during the performance.
As soon as he appeared, everyone converged on him for advice or instruction-Thomas Skillen, the stagekeeper, Hugh Wegges, the tireman, Will Fowler, one of the players, John Tallis, an apprentice, Matthew Lipton, the scrivener, and the distraught Peter Digby, leader of the musicians, who was still mortified that he had sent Richard the Lionheart to his grave with the wrong funeral march. Questions, complaints and requests bombarded the book holder but he coped with them all.
A tall, broad-shouldered man with long fair hair and a full beard, Nicholas Bracewell remained even-tempered as the stress began to tell on his colleagues. He asserted himself without having to raise his voice and his soft West Country accent was a balm to their ears. Ruffled feathers were smoothed, difficulties soon resolved. Then a familiar sound boomed out.
'Nick, dear heart! Come to me.'
Lawrence Firethorn had made a typically dramatic entrance before moving to his accustomed position at the centre of the stage. After almost three years with the company, Nicholas could still be taken aback by him. Firethorn had tremendous presence. A sturdy, barrel-chested man of medium height, he somehow grew in stature when he trod the boards. The face had a flashy handsomeness that was framed by wavy black hair and set off by an exquisitely pointed beard. There was a true nobility in his bearing which belied the fact that he was the son of a village blacksmith.
'Where have you been, Nick?' he enquired.
'Talking with Master Bartholomew.'
'That scurvy knave!'
'It is his play' reminded Nicholas.
'He's an unmannerly rogue!' insisted the actor. 'I could run him through as soon as look at him.'
'Why? Why, sir? Because that dog had the gall to scowl at me throughout the entire rehearsal. I'll not put up with it, Nick. I'll not permit scowls and frowns and black looks at my performance. Keep him away from me.'
'He sends his apologies,' said Nicholas tactfully.
Firethorn's rage was diverted by a sudden peal of bells from a neighbouring church. Since there were well over a hundred churches in the capital, there always seemed to be bells tolling somewhere and it was a constant menace to open air performance. The high galleries of the inn yard could muffle the pandemonium outside in Gracechurch Street but it could not keep out the chimes from an adjacent belfry. Firethorn thrust his sword arm up towards heaven.
'Give me a blade strong enough,' he declared, 'and I'll hack through every bell-rope in London!'
Struck by the absurdity of his own posture, he burst into laughter and Nicholas grinned. Working for Lawrence Firethorn could be an ordeal at times but there was an amiable warmth about him that excused many of his faults. During their association, Nicholas had developed a cautious affection for him. The actor turned to practicalities and cocked an eye upwards.
'We might be lucky and we might not.'
'Be more exact,' pressed Firethorn. 'You're our seaman. You know how to read the sky. What does it tell you?'
Nicholas looked up at the rectangle of blue and grey above the thatched roofs of the galleries. A bright May morning had given way to an uncertain afternoon. The wind had freshened and clouds were scudding across the sky. Fine weather was a vital factor in the performance as Firethorn knew to his cost.
'I have played in torrents of rain,' he announced, 'and I would willingly fight the Battle of Acre in a snowstorm this afternoon. I care not about myself, but about our patrons. And about our costumes.'
Nicholas nodded. The inn yard was not paved. Heavy rain would mire the ground and cause all kinds of problems. He was as anxious to give good news as Firethorn was to receive it. After studying the sky for a couple of minutes, he made his prediction.
'It will stay dry until we are finished.'
'By all, that's wonderful!' exclaimed the actor, slapping his thigh. 'I knew I chose the right man as book holder!'
* * *
The Tragical History of Richard the Lionheart was a moderate success. Playbills advertising the performance had been put up everywhere by the stage keepers and they brought a large and excitable audience flocking to The Queen's Head. Gatherers on duty at the main gates charged a penny for admission. Many people jostled for standing room around the stage itself but the bulk of the audience paid a further penny or two pence to gain access to the galleries, which ran around the yard at three levels and turned it into a natural amphi-theatre. The galleries offered greater comfort, a better view and protection against the elements. Private rooms at the rear were available for rest, recreation or impromptu assignations.
All sorts and conditions of men flooded in—lawyers, clerks, tinkers, tailors, yeomen, soldiers, sailors, carriers, apprentices, merchants, butchers, bakers, chapmen, silk weavers, students from the Inns of Court, aspiring authors, unemployed actors, gaping countrymen, foreign visitors, playhouse gallants, old, young, lords and commoners. Thieves, cutpurses and confidence tricksters mingled with the crowd to ply their trade.
Ladies, wives, mistresses and young girls were fewer in number and, for the most part, masked or veiled. Gentlemen about town pushed and shoved in the galleries to obtain a seat near the women or to consort with the prostitutes who had come up from the Bankside stews in search of clients. Watching the play was only part of the entertainment and a hundred individual dramas were being acted out in the throng.
Some men wore shirts and breeches, others lounged in buff jerkins, others again sported doublet and hose of figured velvet, white ruffs, padded crescent-shaped epaulets, silk stockings, leather gloves, elaborate hats and short, patterned cloaks. Female attire also ranged from the simple to the extravagant with an emphasis on the latest fashions in the galleries, where stiffened bodices, full petticoats, farthingales, cambric or lawn ruffs, long gowns with hanging sleeves, delicate gloves, and tall, crowned hats or French hoods were the order of the day.
Wine, beer, bread, fruit and nuts were served throughout the afternoon and the cheerful hubbub rarely subsided. The trumpet sounded at two-thirty to announce the start of the play then the Prologue appeared in his black cloak. The first and last performance of The Tragical History of Richard the Lionheart was under way.
Squeezed between two gallants in the middle gallery, Roger Bartholomew craned his neck to see over the feathered hats in front of him. The pint of sack had increased his anger yet rendered it impotent. All he could do was to writhe in agony. This was not his play but a grotesque version of it. Lines had been removed, scenes rearranged, battles, duels, sieges and gruesome deaths introduced. There was even a jig for comic effect. What pained the hapless author most was that the changes appealed to the audience.
Lawrence Firethorn held the whole thing together. He compelled attention whenever he was on stage and made the most banal verse soar like sublime poetry:
My name makes cowards flee and evil traitors start For I am known as King Richard the Lionheart!
Excerpted from The Queen's Head by Edward Marston Copyright © 2000 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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Table of Contents1587, and Mary, Queen of Scots, dies by the executioner's axe, her head, shorn of its auburn wig, rolling across the platform. Will her death end the ceaseless plotting against Mary's redhaired cousin, Elizabeth?
1588, the year of the Spanish Armada, is a time of more terror and triumph, not just for queen and court but for the whole of England. The turmoil is reflected in its theatres and under the galleries of inns like London's The Queen's Head where Lord Westfield's Men perform. The scene there on grows even more tumultuous when one of the actors is murdered by a mysterious stranger during a brawl.
Nicholas Bracewell, the company's bookholder, a role far wider than mere producer, faces two immediate repercussions. The first is to secure a replacement acceptable to its temperamental star and chief shareholder Lawrence Firethorn. The second is to keep his promise to the dying Will Fowler and catch his killer.
Soon further robberies, accidents, and misfortunes strike Lord Westfield's Men even as their stage successes swell. Bracewell begins to suspect a conspiracy, not a single murderous act, but where lies the proof? Then the players are rewarded with the ultimate accolade an appearance at court and the canny bookholder senses the end to the drama is at hand....
First published to great acclaim in 1988, The Queen's Head anticipated the lure of bawdy, boisterous, yet elegant epics like Shakespeare in Love. Actor and playwrite Marston has followed with, to date, ten more lusty, historically grounded, theatrically sound Bracewell mysteries that explore the face of England and reveal his deep love for its rich literary and dramatic heritage. The Roaring Boy was nominated for a 1996 Edgar Award for Best Novel.
About The Author:
Keith Miles, aka Edward Marston and Martin Inigo, came from Wales to read Modern History at Oxford. He has been a university lecturer, radio, television, and theatre dramatist, and in addition to writing has worked as an actor, director, and dramatist. He is the author of two mystery series, one Elizabethan in background, the other revolving around the Domesday census of 1086 A.D., and has written mysteries with golf and sports backgrounds under his real name as well as Murder in Perspective, 1997. His Elizabethan novel, The Roaring Boy, was a 1996 Edgar Allan Poe Award nominee for Best Novel. The author is a well known host and raconteur at mystery events and is the 1997 Chairman of the Crime Writers Association. When not travelling or fulfilling speaking engagements, he lives in rural isolation in Kent.