When fire destroys their London theatre, Lord Westfield's players must seek out humbler venues in the countryside. But stage manager Nicholas Bracewell is distracted by a shocking tragedy – a mysterious messenger from his native Devon, murdered by poison. Though the messenger is silenced, Nicholas understands what he must do: return to his birthplace and conclude some unfinished business from his past.
The rest of Westfield's Men, penniless and dejected, ride forth with him on a tour that will perhaps become their valedictory, dogged as they are by plague, poverty, rogues and thieves. And among the sinister shadows that glide silently with them towards Devon is one who means Nicholas never to arrive . . .
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 and is a former chairman of the Crime Writers’ Association. Prolific and highly successful, he is equally at home writing children’sbooks or literary criticism, plays or biographies.
Read an Excerpt
A wind from heaven blew upon the fire of hell and spread damnation. The spectators who were packed into the yard of the Queen's Head in Gracechurch Street thought at first that it was all part of the entertainment, some new and carefully rehearsed piece of action that had been woven into the fabric of the play for their benefit. It made them laugh even more. But they soon learned that their mirth was completely misplaced and that they were caught up in a real crisis. Riotous comedy became stark tragedy. Catastrophe threatened.
What they were watching on that sunlit afternoon was The Devil's Ride Through London, a staple drama from the repertoire of Westfield's Men, one of the leading theatrical troupes in the capital. The plot was simple. Deciding to visit the city in order to terrify its inhabitants, the Devilas played with manic hilarity by Barnaby Gill, the company's resident clownfound it impossible to make any impact because the pain, misery and wickedness he encountered on earth was far worse than anything he could offer in hell. The man who most embodied the evils of London, and around whom the play revolved with giddy speed, was Sir Henry Whoremonger. Traitor, coward, liar, thief, drunkard, gamester and lecher supreme, he kept the seven deadly sins spinning through the air with the skill of a master juggler. The role of Sir Henry drew yet another masterly performance from Lawrence Firethorn, the actor-manager and unrivalled star of Westfield's Men, enabling him to amuse, shock, instruct and excite the audience by turns and whip them into an uproar with the crack of a line whenever hechose. Firethorn made villainy attractive and won the hearts and minds of all who watched. It was no wonder the Prince of Darkness concluded that Sir Henry Whoremonger was by far the greater devil.
Instead of frightening the citizens with dire warnings of what lay ahead, His Satanic Majesty was so shaken by the horrors of everyday life in London that he fled back to the nether regions as fast as his cloven feet would take him. Crouched over a brazier at the rear of the stage, he warmed his hands at the flickering coals and mused on the folly of his visitation.
The sulphurous stench of my own estate
Is perfume compared to Billingsgate.
My vilest tortures are petty sores
On putrefying, pox-ridden Eastcheap whores.
Our howls of anguish are happy sighs
When heard alongside Bedlam's cries.
My foulest poison can never compete
With Marwood's ale in Gracechurch Street.
In the stews of Southwark they have worse fare
Than those who toil here in the Devil's lair.
The first gust of wind brought the brazier to life and flames leapt up to lick at Barnaby Gill's red-gloved hands. He pretended that he had deliberately stoked up the fire and he danced around it with comic despair.
Mortals, behold! You have all witnessed how
London is the truer Purgatory now.
Henceforth I'll lease out cold and timid hell
And dwell instead in fiery Clerkenwell.
Clothed from head to foot in a blood red costume, the Devil flung back his flowing red cloak and adopted a pose of utter defeat. He did not hold it for long. As soon as his garment passed over the top of the brazier, a phantom wind blew so hard on its coals that it became a roaring inferno. The cloak was ignited, the Devil became a being of dazzling light and Barnaby Gill charged around the stage in wild agitation as he tried to rid himself of his burning apparel. His plight earned him no sympathy from the audience. They rocked with laughter and cheered with delight. This act of spontaneous combustion was the funniest thing they had ever seen, and they marvelled at Gill's expertise. When the hapless clown blundered against the backcloth that hung from gallery above the stage, however, all humour was instantly extinguished. The painted flames of hell were now horrendously real. The playgoers were not, in fact, seeing a remarkable feat by an accomplished comedian. A human being was, literally, on fire in front of them.
Panic descended. Men yelled, women screamed, horses neighed and kicked in their stables. All ceremony was abandoned. The hundreds of patrons jammed shoulder to shoulder in the yard itself fought madly to get to the nearest exit. Gallants and their ladies, who had paid an extra penny or two to sit in the galleries, knocked over their benches in their desperation as yellow sparks flew up at them and offered to turn their fine clothes into balls of fire. Nicholas Bracewell was the first person to burst onto the stage. Having controlled the performance from behind the scenes, the book holder now thrust himself purposefully into the action, darting out with a wooden bucket of water and hurling it over Barnaby Gill's cloak before tearing the garment from him. Nicholas burned his fingers slightly, but he undoubtedly saved his colleague's life. Still shrieking with fear, the Devil went sprinting off into the tiring-house to make his escape. Nicholas took stock of the situation, but it was beyond even his resourcefulness. The fire had gained a purchase on the backcloth and was eating its way hungrily upwards. A wall of flame confronted the hysterical onlookers.
Pandemonium now set in. The whole inn seemed to be ablaze. Wherever people ran, they were engulfed by smoke. The acrid smell filled their noses, the crackling flames attacked their ears, the fear of a hideous death crazed their minds. They were as frantic and helpless as the animals now bucking wildly in their stalls. Preferring to live in poverty than to die rich, pickpockets in the crowd took no advantage of the chaos and used both hands to claw a passage out of the yard. The Devil's Ride Through London had turned the Queen's Head into a veritable hell. Survival was all that mattered. Self-interest was deafening.
Nicholas Bracewell wasted no time. He knew that the real danger lay in the overhanging thatch on the topmost gallery. Dried by the sun and crumbling with age, it would go up like tinder, if set alight, and the entire establishment would be destroyed along with several of the adjoining buildings. It was vital to contain the fire as quickly as possible and to stop its upward climb. Nicholas pulled out his dagger and raced to the rear of the stage to hack at the rope that held the backcloth aloft. Cut free from its moorings, it was blown up into the air for a second before coming down like a huge hand of doom to clutch at the fleeing multitude with scorching fingers. This was no longer a merry romp. It was the Last Judgement.
The book holder grabbed another bucket of water from the tiring-house and rushed back onstage to douse the burning backcloth. He then jumped bravely into the flames and tried to stamp them out. Others now followed his example and brought fresh supplies of water. Thomas Skillen, the ancient stage-keeper, emptied his bucket over the brazier then yelled at his assistants to throw their water over the backcloth. While these lowly members of the company hurried off to refill their buckets from the waiting barrels, the actors themselves came out to fight the common enemy. Fire was a great social leveller. Position and dignity were forgotten in the swirling calamity. Westfield's Men were not just helping to save their patrons. They wanted to preserve their theatre and their livelihood.
Lawrence Firethorn came hurtling back onstage with a sodden blanket in his hands. Deprived of his curtain call and of what he saw as the due reward for his towering performance as Sir Henry Whoremonger, he yelled with fury and beat vengefully at the flames. Edmund Hoode was anguished by the sudden termination of one of his best plays, and he came out with a bucket of water dangling from each hand. Barnaby Gill had recovered his composure enough to reappear with a fire shovel and smack away at the smouldering timbers. The burly figure of Owen Elias emerged from the mouth of hell that was the tiring-house and heaved out one of the large water barrels. Nicholas leapt across to help him, and the two of them strained to tip it over. The flaming backcloth became a hissing river of smoke that all but obliterated the innyard. Commotion now reached fever pitch.
And there in the middle of it all, adding to the clamour and hindering the rescue operation, dancing on his toes and flailing his arms like a windmill in a gale, was Alexander Marwood, the embattled landlord of the Queen's Head, a man whose whole life had been a continuous rehearsal for this one final moment of truth. The prophet of disaster had lived to see his prophecy fulfilled and he announced it with almost gleeful terror.
'God is punishing me!' he wailed.
'Help with the buckets,' urged Nicholas.
'This play was sinful!' continued Marwood, leaping around the stage and colliding with each member of the company in turn. 'We are being called to account!'
'Stamp out those rushes!'
But the landlord was too absorbed in his personal conflagration. Flaming guilt shot through his body. Smoking remorse filled his mind. He was being roasted to death like a Protestant martyr at the stake. Searing perspiration burst out of every pore. Yet deep in the great black horror of his nightmare was one tiny consolation. His prediction had been correct. Alexander Marwood had always believed that his association with Westfield's Men would one day end in ruin. Armageddon had finally come to Gracechurch Street. There was a fleeting satisfaction in being a messenger of doom who had delivered his missive to the correct address.
Lawrence Firethorn cannoned into the landlord.
'Out of my way!' he boomed.
'Look what you did to my inn!' screeched Marwood.
'It may yet be saved.'
'You are to blame, Master Firethorn. You and your devilish play. You and your gibes about my ale. You and your crew of madmen. I tell you, sir'
But Firethorn had heard enough and decided that a bucket of water over the landlord would do far more good than over the fire. He discharged his load with angry precision then ran away to refill his bucket. Drenched to the skin, Marwood went off into an even wilder set of imprecations, but nobody had time or inclination to listen. The short, thin, spindly creature was utterly alone amid the heaving sea of bodies, delivering his soliloquy to a deaf audience and grabbing at his remaining tufts of hair like a demented gardener uprooting weeds. Alexander Marwood was burning with indignation while soaking wet.
Then the miracle happened. The wind that had created the fire and comprehensively wrecked the performance now repented, vanishing as swiftly as it had come and sending in its place a gentle shower of rain. Embers lost their fierce glow. Flames climbed with less force and conviction. Smoke slowly began to clear. There was still much to do, but the fear of total devastation was past. Those struggling to subdue the fire swarmed across the stage and up into the galleries with increased vigour. They sensed victory.
Nicholas Bracewell was everywhere, giving orders to one group while leading others by example, directing the efforts of his fellows to the crucial areas and ensuring that the flames did not reach any adjacent properties. The risk of fire was a constant threat to theatre companies, and careless pipe smokers could cause appalling damage with their discarded ash. Nicholas knew only too well what an uncontrolled blaze could do, and he therefore took thorough precautions before every performance. An abundant supply of water was kept in all parts in the building and dozens of buckets were at hand. He even gave the company's hired men some basic training in how to cope with an emergency. That training had been nullified by the size and suddenness of the fire, but it now began to show through. People started to work together instead of at random. Water continuously hit its target instead of being wasted by prodigal hands. Method replaced instinct. Confidence grew. They were winning.
'Look to my thatch!'
Everyone heard Alexander Marwood this time. He pointed a skeletal finger up at the topmost gallery and hopped about with renewed trepidation. Burning splinters of wood had been blown up to lodge in the thatch, and it was now starting to smoke and crackle. Nicholas needed only one glance. Instant response was their only hope. Running to the side of the stage, he shinned up the timber support and hauled himself over the balustrade of the first gallery. The others all stopped to watch and exhort him on as he went up his charred route like a sailor going up the rigging. The thatch was now seething with crimson rage and threatening to explode. As soon as Nicholas reached it, therefore, he hacked out its glowing centre and a cascade of burning reeds scattered those below. Feet balancing on the balustrade, he then stretched right up to fling the upper half of his body down onto the still-burning thatch.
It was an act of such folly and bravery that it drew applause from the onlookers, but their apprehension was not stilled. High above them, glimpsed through the curling smoke of fifty dying fires, a man was risking his life to save the roof of the inn. His feet rested precariously on blackened timber, his chest was pressed down hard on smouldering thatch and his dagger was sunk deep into the reeds to give him some support. Eyes closed tight, muscles taut, he retched violently and felt the hot sweat course down his face. Only a buff jerkin and the power of his broad chest separated him from a hideous death. Nicholas Bracewell's courage now began to look like a perverse act of suicide.
Yet somehow it worked. The rain intensified, the smoke thinned and his agony gradually subsided. Denied any licence, the fire was being choked out of existence inch by painful inch. The vast parallelogram of thatch that topped the building had been rescued. Buckets now reached the upper gallery and waves of water surged up at Nicholas. The danger was over and he dared to relax. He was not, after all, being broiled to death on the roof of the Queen's Head. Cheers from below told him that he was the hero of the hour. It had cost him his jerkin and gained him several more minor burns, but they were a small price to pay. Effectively, he had just rendered the greatest possible service to Westfield's Men. He had saved their theatre from certain annihilation.
Ten minutes later, the last glimmering remnants of the fire had been put out, and Nicholas stood in the middle of the yard, panting from his exertions and offering up a silent prayer of thanks. There were bruises and burns galore among his fellows, and a few broken bones among the fleeing patrons, but nobody had died and none of the horses had been injured. God had been truly merciful. Nicholas could now receive the congratulations of the others. Lawrence Firethorn was the first to wrap him in a warm and affectionate embrace.
'Nick, dear heart! We are ever in your debt!'
'You are our Deliverer,' added Edmund Hoode.
'I will never act with a brazier again,' said Barnaby Gill testily. 'My performance was ruined.'
Firethorn bristled. 'The fate of the company is more important than the quality of your performance. It was your idiocy that is to blame, Barnaby. Thanks to you, our theatre was almost razed to the ground. Thanks to Nicholas, we still have a future at the Queen's Head.'
'Not for some time,' said Nicholas with a sigh.
The smoke had now cleared enough for him to appraise the extent of the damage. It was far less than it might have been and was largely confined to the tiring-house and to the galleries directly above, but substantial rebuilding would still be necessary. Main beams had burned through or been severely weakened. Floors had collapsed. Nicholas could see that it would be several weeksif not monthsbefore the Queen's Head was able to host a theatre company once more.
Alexander Marwood set an even longer time limit on their return. When the fire was eventually brought under control, he did not know whether to be happy that his inn survived or feel hurt because his prophecy did not, and so he opted for a relieved misery by way of compromise. He hated plays, he loathed players and he was revolted by the sight of the debris all around him. This was his reward for the lunacy of permitting irresponsible actors to hire his property. He twitched his way across to Lawrence Firethorn and issued his death sentence.
'Westfield's Men will never play here again!'
'But we have an agreement,' said Firethorn.
'It has been revoked.'
'Silence, you gibbering nonentity!'
'That is my final word, sir.'
'And so it shall be!' snarled Firethorn, pulling out his dagger and raising it to strike. 'Die, you venomous little toad! Perish, you vermin!'
'Hold!' shouted Nicholas, interposing himself between the two men and easing Marwood away. 'Do not be too hasty here,' he said in soothing tones. 'This has been highly unfortunate and we regret it as much as you, but the Queen's Head still stands. It can be restored to its former glory. And we have been spared to continue our work.'
'Not in my inn, Master Bracewell.'
Firethorn's dagger glinted. 'Remember our contract.'
'It was the bane of my life.'
'A contract is a contract.'
'No, Master Firethorn!' The landlord was adamant. 'You were entitled to stage your plays in my yard not to burn down my premises. Behold your accursed work, sir!' Marwood made a histrionic gesture with his arm that was worthy of the actor-manager himself. 'The Devil has no need to ride through London when Westfield's Men may do his work for him. Talk not to me of our contract. It has gone up in smoke!'
* * *
London was a rapidly expanding community that had long since pushed out beyond the high city walls that had defined and defended it since Roman times. Suburbs thickened both north and south of the Thames to make the capital ten times larger than Norwich, its nearest English rival. In size and importance, it was the equal of any city in Europe with a bustle and energy that were beyond compare. The sounds and smells of London spread for miles in every direction. It was much more than a geographical phenomenon. Whether serving as a home, market, port or seat of government, the city was wholly and triumphantly alive.
There was no better place to observe the variety and vitality of the place than at Ludgate, one of the mighty portals that pierced the wall and allowed citizens and visitors alike to stream in and out beneath the raised portcullis. The gate had recently been rebuilt and the decorative statues of Queen Elizabeth, King Lud and his two sons now looked down from renovated perches upon the scene of activity below. Carts, coaches and drays rumbled into the city. The clack of hooves was never ending. Children played recklessly amid the traffic. Dogs sniffed and fought and yelped. Beggars lurked to solicit newcomers or to importune those taking their leave. Friends met to converse. A knot of spectators gathered to watch a malefactor being whipped by a beadle. Darker punishments were being endured by those who were incarcerated in Ludgate prison and who thrust their imploring arms through barred windows in search of food and drink. Birds flapped and swooped.
The man who sat astride his horse just outside the gate observed it all with a shrewd eye. His build and bearing suggested a yeoman but his doublet and hose were closer to those worn by a city gentleman. There was fur trim around his hat. He was of medium height and his craggy face bore the imprint of at least thirty eventful years. His raven black beard was well barbered enough to hint at vanity and he stroked it with ruminative care. The faint air of a countryman seemed to linger only to be dispelled by the knowing sophistication of a Londoner.
He had been there since dawn when the market traders streamed into the city with their produce to set up their stalls. Nobody who passed through Ludgate during a long morning escaped his scrutiny, and the man hardly moved from his position of vantage, except to dismount from time to time in order to stretch his legs. Even when he relieved himself against a wall in a sheltered corner, he did not relax his surveillance. As noon was proclaimed by a jangling choir of bells, he was back in the saddle, raking the latest batch of arrivals with a stern gaze, then clicking his tongue in irritation when he did not find the face he so earnestly sought.
Could he have been mistaken? It was impossible to think that his vigilance had been at fault, but the sharpest eyes were useless if trained on the wrong location. Supposing his quarry had come along Holborn in order to enter the city through Newgate? Supposing he had struck even farther north and passed beneath the crenellations of Aldersgate or even Cripplegate? He discounted these alternatives almost as soon as he considered them. Someone who had ridden so far already would not needlessly add to the length of his journey. Most travellers approaching from the south-west would come by way of Westminster to Charing Cross then continue along the Strand until it merged into Fleet Street. That made Ludgate the only logical point of access.
So where was he? Had some accident detained or diverted him? The man's information came from a reliable source and it had placed his quarry at Colnbrook on the previous night. Could it take so long to cover a distance of fifteen miles? Someone who was so eager to reach London would surely not be delayed. Unless he had some forewarning of what lay ahead. Was his absence due to a timely premonition? Did he sense what awaited him in the shadow of Ludgate? Had fear sent him by a more anonymous route into the city?
The anxious sentry was still trying to assimilate this new possibility when his long wait came to an end. Another bevy of travellers, some twenty or so, came trotting towards him. They were hot and dusty from a long ride but their discomfort was forgotten in the excitement of their arrival. For most of them, it was clear, this was a first and overwhelming visit to the capital. These were provincial gapers. Eyes that had bulged at the myriad wonders of Westminster now widened in awe as the cathedral of St Paul's rose up above the wall ahead of them like a mountain. The experience was at once exhilarating and intimidating.
He spotted his prey at once. The youth was in the middle of the cavalcade, using his companions as a protective ring, transfixed by what he saw and riding along in a kind of reverential daze. Short, plump and pale, he had plain features that were centered on a snub nose. His skin was soft, his face clean-shaven, his eyebrows thick and unsightly. He wore buff jerkin and hose with a cap pulled down over his close-cropped hair. The man put him around seventeen and knew that this was his designated target. Everyone else in the company was much older and the youth fitted in every detail the description he had been sent.
As the leaders went in through Ludgate, the man turned his own horse to join the rear of the group. There were fresh cries of astonishment as the travellers came face-to-face with the true heart of the city, with its mad jumble of houses, inns, churches and civic buildings, and with the happy turmoil of its streets. Voices lost in the din, they picked their way through the seething mass of bodies that converged on St Paul's churchyard. By the time they reached Watling Street, they started to disperse to their destinations, some heading up towards Cheapside, others cutting down towards the river, a few turning off into Cordwainer Street to make a first purchase from the shoemakers.
The youth stayed with the rump of the party as it bore due east into Candlewick Street. Riding alongside him was a big, well-dressed man of middle years on a chestnut mare. Unlike the others, he was evidently a seasoned traveller who had only joined the company for the safety it offered. Patently at ease in London, he showed an avuncular concern for the youth and pointed out each new item of interest. As further members of the group peeled away, only a handful were left to turn at last into Gracechurch Street. Still trailing at a discreet distance, the man with the black beard watched the youth and his obliging friend swing into the yard of the Queen's Head. Though the fire on the previous day had closed part of the building down, the taproom was as busy and noisy as ever.
Excerpted from The Silent Woman by Edward Marston. Copyright © 1994 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.