A laughing hangman turns the stage into the gallows...
When Nicholas Bracewell finds himself once again in the parlour of his lost love, Anne Hendrik, he was not expecting her entreaties to embroil him in the murder of a beloved choir master. Between tales of cruelty, forgotten maps of London and a butcher determined to rescue his son, it is yet another mystery for the book keeper to untangle. But will his quest endanger Lord Westfield’s Men?
As their latest play, The Misfortunes of Marriage, threatens to break them apart beneath the playwright’s own belligerent ribaldry, the threat of the hangman stalks ever closer. And with every step his laughter rings with the power to turn even the hallowed stage into the gallows.
About the Author
Edward Marston was born and brought up in South Wales. A full-time writer for over forty years, he has worked in radio, film, television and the theatre and is a former chairman of the Crime Writers’ Association. Prolific and highly successful, he is equally at home writing children’s books or literary criticism, plays or biographies.
Read an Excerpt
The Laughing Hangman
By Edward Marston
Poisoned Pen PressCopyright © 1996 Edward Marston
All right reserved.
Chapter OneHe missed her. Nicholas Bracewell felt a pang of regret so sharp and so unexpected that it made him catch his breath. He looked down involuntarily to see if the point of a knife had pricked his chest and drawn blood. Nicholas had not even been thinking about Anne Hendrik, still less talking about her, yet she was suddenly filling his mind, standing before his eyes and stroking his cheek with wistful fingers. It was at once reassuring and tantalising.
For several minutes, Nicholas was so enveloped by a flurry of wonderful memories that he paid no heed to the argument that was raging in front of him. Anne Hendrik whispered softly in his ear and kept out the violent discord. The book holder did not even hear the fist that banged the table like the blast of a cannon.
'I'll not be thwarted!' roared Lawrence Firethorn.
'Then leave off this madness!' argued Barnaby Gill.
'I put the good of the company first and foremost.'
'You have never done so before, Lawrence.'
'I have always done so! It is you who believe that Westfield's Men exists for the greater glory of one paltry individual.'
'And who might that be?'
'Look in any mirror, Barnaby. He will leer back at you.'
'That is a gross slander!'
'I speak but the truth.'
'Calumny!' said Gill, rising to his feet andinflating his chest to its full extent. 'But for me, there would be no company. I have oftentimes saved it from extinction and I am trying to do so again.'
'You are obstructing the path to triumph.'
'Yes, Lawrence. Triumph for our rivals. If we follow your lunatic advice, we hand the advantage to them.'
'My plan puts Westfield's Men in the seat of power.'
'It is a cucking-stool and we shall be drowned by ridicule if we place our buttocks anywhere near it.'
Firethorn gave a mock bow. 'I defer to your superior knowledge on the subject of buttocks.'
Barnaby Gill turned purple and slapped his thigh with a petulant palm. Turning on his heel, he tried to make a dramatic exit, but Edmund Hoode jumped up to restrain him.
'Hold, Barnaby. This is no way to settle a quarrel.'
'I'll not stay to be insulted.'
'Then scurry off,' said Firethorn, 'for the very sight of you calls up a hundred insults. We'll make the decision without you and inform you in due course.'
Gill stamped a foot. 'I demand to be part of that decision.'
'Take your seat once more and you will be,' soothed Hoode. 'Your voice is needed at this table, Barnaby, and you shall be heard. Is that not so, Nick?'
A nudge brought Nicholas out of his reverie and he adjusted quickly to the familiar scene. Lawrence Firethorn and Barnaby Gill were at each other's throats again. Two men who could combine brilliantly to lift the performance of any play were sworn enemies the moment that they quit the stage. Their mutual antagonism went deeper than mere professional jealousy. Firethorn, the company's actor-manager, felt that his remarkable talents were not properly acknowledged by his colleague; Gill, the resident clown with Westfield's Men, saw himself as the true leader of the troupe and resented any reminder that he occupied second place behind Firethorn.
Nicholas Bracewell helped to calm the quivering Gill and the latter eventually agreed to resume his seat. The four men were in the parlour of Firethorn's house in Old Street. Everyone in Shoreditch was aware of the fact because it intruded stridently on their eardrums and they were not sure if they found Firethorn's deep bellow or Gill's high-pitched wail the more tiresome. Regular acrimony in the parlour had one domestic compensation. It dusted the room so thoroughly that the servant did not need to brush the cobwebs from the beams or sweep the beetles out of corners. Every creature that could walk, crawl or fly vacated the premises at once. Even the mice in the thatch fled to a quieter refuge.
'I thought it might be a moment for more refreshment.'
Margery Firethorn came sailing into the room with a wooden tray in her hands and a benign smile on her handsome face. Her entry was perfectly timed to break the tension and allow the combatants to cool off. As she set a plate of warm cakes and a fresh pitcher of wine in front of them, she caught Nicholas's eye and gave him an affectionate wink. He replied with a quiet grin of thanks. Not for the first time, a woman who could rant and rail as loud as her husband on occasion had imposed a welcome stillness with a show of gentle hospitality.
While Gill reached for the wine, Firethorn grabbed a cake to pop into his mouth. He munched it happily and the crumbs found a temporary lodging in his black beard.
'Thank you, my dove,' he cooed.
'We are most grateful,' added Edmund Hoode, replenishing his own cup and taking a deep sip. 'Nectar!'
'Do you have need of anything else?' she said.
'No,' grunted Gill.
'We will call if we do, my angel,' said her husband, blowing her a fond kiss.
'I'll stay within earshot, Lawrence.'
Hoode nodded ruefully. 'All of London does that!'
Margery let out a rich cackle and went back into the kitchen. Her intervention had taken the sting out of the discussion. Anger subsided and reason slowly returned. Firethorn was soon ready to draw the others into the debate.
'What is your opinion, Nick?' he asked.
'It matters not,' said Gill, testily. 'This is a question to be decided by we three sharers, not by one of the hired men. Nicholas is a competent book holder, I grant you, but he does not rank with us.'
'No,' said Hoode, coming to the defence. 'He ranks far higher. His wisdom and loyalty have rescued us from damnation more times than I can count. Lawrence seeks his counsel and so do I. Speak up, Nick.'
'Yours is the more important voice here, Edmund.'
'Yes,' observed Nicholas. 'This touches you more directly than any of us. The argument thus far has simply been about a new play.'
'A masterpiece!' affirmed Firethorn.
'A monstrosity!' countered Gill.
'It is only right that players should dispute the merits of a drama,' continued Nicholas tactfully, 'but you may be more concerned with the character of the dramatist.'
Edmund Hoode winced slightly. He had been doing his best to separate the play from the playwright because the very name of Jonas Applegarth could set his teeth on edge. It was not a case of naked envy. Hood admired the other's work immensely and was the first to admit that Applegarth was the superior poet. In terms of literary talent, the latter could outshine anyone in London, but there were other aspects of Jonas Applegarth that were far less appealing. Edmund Hoode made an effort to draw a veil over them.
'The Misfortunes of Marriage is a fine play,' he said with unfeigned enthusiasm. 'It is comedy with a satirical edge and far exceeds anything that my wilting pen could produce. The Queen's Head will not have seen a more riotous afternoon than Applegarth's play will offer.' He swallowed hard. 'I believe that we should put personal considerations aside and stage the play. There is pure genius in The Misfortunes of Marriage.'
'I love the piece,' said Firethorn.
'I hate it,' said Gill, 'yet I applaud the title. The misfortunes of marriage are far too many and varied to attract me into the connubial state.'
Margery Firethorn snorted with derision in the kitchen. Her husband chuckled and Nicholas traded an amused glance with him. Edmund Hoode tried hard to convince himself that it was in his own best interests to accept the new play for performance by Westfield's Men.
'Jonas Applegarth has his vices, I know,' he said with masterly understatement, 'but they are outweighed by his virtues. We must always embrace rare talent where we find it. For my own part, I will be happy to work alongside Master Applegarth. I look to learn much from him.'
Firethorn beamed. 'Nobly spoken, Edmund!'
'Indeed,' said Gill, 'but I would urge a little less nobility and a little more caution on your behalf. You are our poet, Edmund, and your art has served us well. Do you want to be eclipsed by this freak of nature? Do you wish to have your livelihood squashed flat beneath the hideous bulk of Jonas Applegarth?'
Hoode shifted uneasily on his chair. 'I must recognise a good play when I see one.'
'That is more than Applegarth does,' retorted Gill. 'He pours scorn over everything you have written.'
'Only in his cups,' said Firethorn airily. 'What poet does not abuse his fellows when too much drink is taken?'
'Edmund Hoode does not,' noted Nicholas.
'He is far too trusting,' said Gill. 'Applegarth will tread all over him and unsettle the entire company.'
'That will not be tolerated!' said Firethorn firmly. 'You have my word on that. He works here on our terms or not at all. Nick will make him understand that.' He slipped another cake into his mouth and looked around contentedly. 'Well, Edmund and I agree that The Misfortunes of Marriage is a worthy addition to our repertoire.'
'I refuse to countenance the idea,' said Gill.
'Our two votes tip the scales against your one.'
'We have not heard Nick's opinion yet,' said Hoode.
'Nor need we,' muttered Gill.
'Unless it chimes with your own, Barnaby,' teased Firethorn. 'You'd elevate Nick Bracewell to sharer on the spot for that.' He turned to the book holder. 'Well? Cast your vote, Nick. Speak freely among friends.'
Hoode leant forward. 'How do you like The Misfortunes of Marriage?'
Nicholas sat up with a start, realising that it was the title and matter of the play which had conjured up Anne Hendrik's memory. When he had finally come to see how dearly he loved her, he proposed marriage on the confident assumption that she would accept his hand. Misfortune had struck. Anne Hendrik refused him and his emotional life had been adrift ever since.
'How do you like it?' pressed Firethorn. 'Tell us!'
'I like it well,' said Nicholas, shaking his head to evict its female ghost. 'The play will offer Westfield's Men a challenge but I am certain that we can rise to it. My only reservations concern the author.'
Firethorn flicked a dismissive hand. 'Jonas Applegarth cannot help being so ugly and ill-favoured.'
'I speak not of his appearance,' said Nicholas. 'It is his behaviour that troubles me. Quarrels, fights, drunkenness. Some companies refuse to let him near them.'
'So should we!' hissed Gill.
'Strict conditions need to be laid down at the outset. That is my advice. If he joins Westfietd's Men, let Master Applegarth know that he must abide by our rules. We want no upheaval in the company.' Nicholas gave a shrug. 'In short, present the play for its sheer delight but keep a tight rein on the playwright.'
Barnaby Gill blustered but all to no avail. The die had been cast. The Misfortunes of Marriage would receive its first performance the following week. It would be left to Nicholas Bracewell to break the news to Jonas Applegarth and to make him aware of his contractual obligations. Edmund Hoode was sad and pensive. Honesty compelled him to praise the play but he sensed that he would suffer humiliation as a result. When Gill stalked out, therefore, Hoode also took his leave. Both men had grave misgivings, albeit of different kinds.
Lawrence Firethorn watched them through the window before turning to clap the book holder on the shoulder.
'Nick, dear heart!' he predicted. 'We have made one of the most momentous decisions in the history of Westfield's Men. I dote on Edmund and on his plays, but Jonas Applegarth puts his work in the shade. My only complaint is that The Misfortunes of Marriage will spring to life in the mean surroundings of the innyard at the Queen's Head under the gaze of that death's-head of a landlord. It calls for a truer playhouse. It deserves to be staged at The Curtain or at The Theatre.'
'The Rose would be a fitter place,' said Nicholas.
As the words came out of his mouth, Anne Hendrik stepped back into his thoughts. The Rose was a recently built theatre in Bankside. When the book holder lodged with Anne, sharing her life and basking in her love, he had been within easy walking distance of the playhouse. He would always associate The Rose with the happier times he spent on the south bank of the Thames.
Firethorn saw the faraway look on his friend's face. He knew the book holder well enough to guess at its meaning.
'Still brooding on her, Nick?'
'I must away. There is much work to do.'
'Go to her, man. Plead your case.'
'That is all past,' said Nicholas briskly. 'Pray excuse me. I must seek out Jonas Applegarth. He will be eager to know the fate of his play and I must explain clearly the conditions on which we accept it.'
Firethorn caught his arm. 'How long has it been?'
There was a brief pause. The pang of remorse was even sharper this time, the sense of loss more extreme.
'A year,' said Nicholas, as the truth dawned on him. 'A year to the day.'
He at last understood why he was missing Anne Hendrik so much. It was the first anniversary of their parting.
* * *
Jonas Applegarth lay back in the oak settle and rocked with mirth. Delighted that his play had been accepted by Westfield's Men, he was celebrating in the taproom of the Queen's Head with some of his new fellows. Applegarth was barely thirty but his vast girth, his thinning hair, his grey beard and his pock-marked skin added a decade and more. Whenever he moved, the hooks on his doublet threatened to snap and his huge thighs seemed on the point of bursting the banks of his breeches and flooding the settle.
The colossal body was matched by a colossal appetite and a seemingly insatiable thirst. Jonas Applegarth drank tankards of beer as fast as they could be filled, but it was no solitary indulgence. Generous with his money, he invited four of his new friends to join him in his revelry and they were soon cracking merry jests together.
Owen Elias laughed loudest of all. An ebullient Welsh actor with a love of life, he discerned a soulmate in Jonas Applegarth. The dramatist had not only provided Elias with an excellent role in his play, he was showing that he could roister with the wildest of them. In the short time he'd been with the troupe, Applegarth had taken the measure of Westfield's Men.
'What think you of Barnaby Gill?' asked Elias.
'Far less than he thinks of himself,' said Applegarth as he preened himself in an invisible mirror. 'Not a pretty boy in London is safe when Master Gill is strutting about the town in his finery. 'Tis well that he is not employed at Blackfriars or the Chapel Children would fear for their virtue every time they bent in prayer.'
Owen Elias led the crude laughter once again and two of his fellows joined in. The one exception was James Ingram, a tall, slender young man with the dashing good looks of an actor allied to the poise of courtier. As the others enlarged upon their theme, Ingram remained detached and watchful. The target of the general amusement was now fixed on the Children of Her Majesty's Chapel Royal, a theatre company of boys who performed at the reconstructed playhouse in Blackfriars. Westfield's Men competed for an audience with the Chapel Children so they had good reason to mock their rivals. James Ingram had equally good reason to stand apart from the ribaldry.
Jonas Applegarth told of his Blackfriars experience.
'He had the gall to ask me for a play.'
'Who?' said Elias.
'Cyril Fulbeck, the Master of the Chapel.' Applegarth emptied another tankard. 'He and his partner in the enterprise, Raphael Parsons, expected a full-grown poet like me to devise a drama for his dribbling pygmies. As if I'd turn punk and sell my art at so cheap a price!'
'What was its subject?'
'The stalest of all. Antony and Cleopatra.'
'Can a ten-year-old chorister with a piping voice wield power over the Roman Empire?'
Excerpted from The Laughing Hangman by Edward Marston Copyright © 1996 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.