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Edmund Hoode was shouldering his way through the crowd in Gracechurch Street when it happened. Realisation took him completely by surprise and brought him to a sudden halt. He did not even notice that he was standing in a puddle of water or that his shoes were attracting the sniffing' nostrils of a stray dog. Troth hit him like a shaft of sunlight breaking through the dark clouds above. He was happy. Gloriously and seriously happy. For the first time in several years, he was unaccountably filled with a pure contentment. It was a small miracle. On a dull, cold, wind-blown morning, amid the jostling elbows and deafening noise of a bustling London thoroughfare, he experienced a quiet joy which took his breath away.
It was baffling. Hoode was no stranger to the exhilaration of lust, still less to the pulsing delights of love but here was ecstasy of a wholly different order. It was no brief flame of passion which would burn itself out and leave him in the pit of depression which was his normal abode; indeed, romantic entanglement was, for once, markedly absent from his life and had no bearing on the feelings which surged within him. What he now basked in was a deep and satisfying inner glow. Edmund Hoode, the loyal, hapless, overworked, teased and tormented playwright with Westfield's Men, was enjoying a peace of mind that blocked out all else.
It took a sharp nudge in the ribs to bring him out of his reverie. The old woman whose basket of fruit had struck him so hard and so carelessly apologised gruffly but Hoode waved her away with a forgiving smile. Nothing could dent his senseof pleasure. As his legs began to move again in the direction of the Queen's Head, he tried to piece together in his mind the constituent elements of his happiness. How had he managed to stumble into this rare condition?
More to the point, how long would it last?
'Well met, Edmund!'
'Good morrow, Lucius!'
'You are an early bird today.'
'I could say the same of you, my friend.'
'I take instruction from my master. In this, as in all other things, he sets a good example for me to follow.'
There was no irony in his voice. Lucius Kindell was a model of sincerity. Young, keen and fresh-faced, he openly acknowledged Hoode as his inspiration and was a most willing apprentice. Hoode was at once touched and flattered. Kindell was a talented poet, a University wit whose brilliance at Oxford had earned him a wide reputation and whose fledgling dramas had enormous promise. Under the guidance of a veteran playwright, that promise was already bearing fruit.
When Lucius Kindell was first introduced to him, Hoode had been wary and defensive. Oxford and Cambridge graduates tended to be wilful and arrogant, reluctant to accept criticism of their plays and quick to mock those, like Hoode himself, who lacked a university education. Expecting to build a huge instant reputation, they were not prepared to put in the years of patient toil on the stage as they mastered their craft. Lucius Kindell, by contrast, was a modest, unassuming and conscientious pupil who was anxious to learn all that he could from a superior playwright. He had a streak of mischief in him and was a gifted satirist but he had none of the intellectual bumptiousness which so often marred the characters of self-styled University wits.
Hoode's reservations about him soon fled away. Kindell was not only a skillful dramatist and a congenial collaborator; he brought the best out of his teacher. Hoode's own work actually improved, partly because he set about it with new enthuasiam and partly because he wanted to impress his young charge even more. Lucius Kindell's arrival on the scene was without doubt a contributory cause of the other's happiness. Though far from old himself, Hoode found himself taking a paternal interest in the latest addition to the company's playwrights. Kindell was the son he seemed doomed never to father.
'I had a sleepless night,' admitted Kindell.
'That is only to be expected,' said Hoode, reassuringly. 'Every true poet is justifiably nervous on the eve of the performance of his play.'
'Our play, Edmund. Our play.'
'You conceived the drama. I merely acted as a kind of midwife to bring it squealing into the world.'
'You did far more than that,' said Kindell with a glint of admiration in his eyes. 'You transformed it. What I provided were some clever ideas in a shapeless tragedy. You fashioned it into a real drama. Any virtues it possesses were put there by Edmund Hoode.'
'Thank you, Lucius.'
'You are my mentor.'
'That role has brought me intense pride.'
'I sit at your feet.'
Kindell somehow managed to sound grateful without being obsequious. Hoode was delighted that someone appreciated him but he was also conscious of the debt he owed to his young friend. Kindell had concentrated his mind on subjects which he normally avoided. Known for his rumbustious comedies, Hoode had worked with his collaborator on two dark tragedies, both of which explored the power of religion to save and also to pervert. Their first play had been a modest success, their second joint offering, The Insatiate Duke, was due to receive its premiere at the Queen's Head that afternoon.
The young playwright had brought a spiritual dimension into the life of Edmund Hoode which had been woefully missing. Instead of penning yet another rustic farce with romantic sub-plots, Hoode was responding to the deeper challenge of tragedy and confronting far more serious issues. Significantly, his resort to prayer had been more willing, his attendance at church more regular. Writing about the struggle between Christianity and its detractors had brought him substantially closer to his Maker. Hoode was uplifted. He felt cleansed.
Lucius Kindell was apprehensive about the performance.
'How will The Insatiate Duke be received, do you think?' he wondered. 'Will they approve of its theme?'
'They must,' said Hoode. 'It is a fine play.'
'And if they do not?'
'Put that thought out of your mind, Lucius.'
'Master Firethorn speaks well of the piece,' said the other, trying to instil confidence into himself. 'So does Master Gill-since you put in those additional songs for him. And the most reliable judgement of all is that of Nicholas Bracewell. He has nothing but praise for my work.
'And so do I. Fear not.'
'My whole body trembles.'
'Applause will soon still you.'
'If the play merits applause.'
'It does,' insisted Hoode. 'Trust me, Lucius.'
'I do. Implicitly.'
Hoode put an affectionate arm around him and guided his friend into the innyard. Hurrying towards them with head down, a buxom figure in a flurry of skirts all but collided with them and forced the couple to break apart. Rose Marwood stopped, looked up, blushed, dropped a vestigial curtsey and stammered an apology.
'The fault is entirely on our side,' said Hoode with beaming gallantry. 'We are sorry to block your path.'
'Thank you, Master Hoode,' she muttered.
'Do not let us detain you.
'That would be too unmannerly,' added Kindell.
They stepped aside to allow Rose Marwood to scurry on past them and lose herself in the crowd. The landlord's daughter was a pretty wench with a shining face and long dark hair which streamed out beneath her cap. She had a bloom on her which habitually turned the heads of the company and Kindell was not immune to her nubile charms. He gazed after her with the fondness of rising curiosity.
'What a splendid creature she is!' he mused.
'Why, Rose Marwood, of course.'
'A pleasant enough girl, to be sure.'
'She is a young woman in her prime,' said Kindell. I never see her but I think what a blessing it is that she does not resemble either of her parents. They are ogres whereas their daughter is portrait of delight.'
Hoode was surprised. 'Is she?'
'Surely, you must have noticed.'
'Who else? Low-born, perhaps, but quite lovely.'
Edmund Hoode had mild convulsions as another revelation hit him. Rose Marwood had been inches away from him, yet he had been untroubled either by desire or guilt. Her shapely body usually aroused at least a distant lust in him and he was for ever haunted by the memory of a time when he had rashly bestowed his affections on her to the point of writing a sonnet in praise of her. Rose Marwood's inability to read had rescued him from real embarrassment and he never met her without being reminded of his earlier folly.
Until now, that is. Proximity to those deliciously full ruby lips, those gleaming white teeth, those dimpled cheeks, those sparkling eyes and all the other attributes of her urgent femininity no longer unsettled him. Edmund Hoode was impervious to her and, by extension, to the seductive presence of women in general. He had finally conquered his demons. The hideous perils of romantic passion were a thing of the past. That was the insight he now gained. Unencumbered by his disastrous involvement with the fairer sex, his life at last had meaning, direction and dignity.
Happiness was celibacy.
The Insatiate Duke presented a similar argument in dramatic terms. Debauchery was the road to despair. Virtue lay in monastic solitude. The rewards of the virginity outweighed all of the temporary pleasures of concupiscence. It was not the most endearing message to thrust upon an audience which had come in search of rousing entertainment and which contained a fair scattering of prostitutes, courtesans, wayward wives and lecherous gallants, but it was offered in such a cunning and persuasive way as to sweep all resistance aside. Dark, powerful and harrowing, The Insatiate Duke was nevertheless shot through with moments of wild comedy. Laughter was mixed liberally with sorrow.
New facets of Edmund Hoode's talents were on display. Even his closest friends in the company were astonished.
'What has got into him?' asked Lawrence Firethorn.
'He excels himself,' said Nicholas Bracewell.
'I have never seen Edmund attack a part with such verve. The wonder of it is, he all but outshines me, Nick. Me, the appointed star in this particular firmament, the smiling villain, the insatiate and tyrannical Duke of Parma. Humbled by a creeping cardinal, a pale-faced eunuch in a red robe."
'Edmund's finest hour.'
'In one of his best pieces.'
'Lucius Kindell must take some credit for that,' Nicholas reminded him. 'They collaborated on the play.'
'True,' agreed Firethorn, 'but Edmund Hoode deserves all the plaudits for Cardinal Boccherini. It is the performance of his lifetime. The part fits him like a glove. Heavens, man, he actually stole a scene from me.'
'He will steal another if you miss your entrance,' warned Nicholas, one ear on the progress of the play. 'Cardinal Boccherini has come to confront you.'
'A worthy adversary, indeed!'
A fanfare sounded and Cosimo, Duke of Parma strode out on to the stage with his entourage. He and the cardinal were soon engaged in a long, heated debate about moral responsibility. Lawrence Firethorn was at his best in the leading role, sleek and sinister, unperturbed by the charges levelled at him and justifying his villainy in the most shameless way. Edmund Hoode could not match his raw power but he brought a nobility and sincerity to his role which commanded attention.
The verbal duel between the two actors was a mixture of fury and eloquence. Italian cardinals rarely gained sympathy from a Protestant audience such as the one which filled the yard at the Queen's Head that day but Cardinal Boccherini was an exception to the rule. Spectators were cheering him on. They were accustomed to watching brilliant performances from Lawrence Firethorn, the actor-manager with Westfield's Men, but they had never seen Edmund Hoode, so often confined to a cameo role, reach such heights.
Nicholas Bracewell watched from behind the scenes. Owen Elias stood beside him and shook his head in wonderment. A swaggering actor of great versatility, the Welshman was quick to admire the abilities of his colleagues.
'Has he been drinking, Nick?' he asked.
'Is that ale we can hear or Canary wine?'
'Neither, Owen. He is as sober as you and I.'
'Then something he has eaten has put that fight into him. Find out what it was and the whole company can dine off it henceforth. Let us all profit from this magical sustenance.'
'Food and drink are not responsible,' said Nicholas.
'See for yourself.'
'Then he must be in love again.'
'I think not.'
'This shower of sparks is aimed at some pretty face up in the gallery, I wager. Edmund Hoode is ensnared once more. '
'Only by his art.'
'What say you?'
'That is all we are witnessing,' derided Nicholas with a quiet smile. 'Sheer histrionic skill.'
'Why have we never seen it in such abundance before?'
'He lacks your confidence.'
'Not any more, Nick. Listen to him. This cardinal has such a supple tongue that it could make me turn Roman Catholic and swear allegiance to the Pope.'
With a wave of his arm, Nicholas motioned two soldiers in armour forward. On their cue, they marched on to the stage and laid violent hands upon Cardinal Boccherini. The audience let out a communal gasp of shock. As the prelate was hauled off to the dungeon, spectators began to hiss and protest at the cruel treatment meted out to him. The Duke of Parma revelled in their disapproval and gloried in his wickedness. He also took full advantage of his finest scene in the play.
In calling Duke Cosimo to account for his sinfulness, the fearless cardinal had been trying to protect the virtue of the beauteous Emilia, a novice from the convent who had caught the duke's lascivious eye. Elected to be the duke's latest victim, she was now defenceless. What Cosimo did not know, however, was that Emilia was in fact his own daughter, conceived in a moment of lust with a lady-in-waiting at the Milanese court. When Emilia was summoned to the duke's bedchamber to serve his pleasure, a groan of horror went around the innyard. Spectators were aware of the true relationship between the couple. Not only was a helpless virgin about to be defiled, she would be forced unwittingly to commit incest.
Richard Honeydew, the youngest of the apprentices, gave a moving performance as Emilia, brave, honest, devout but hopelessly caught in a web of corruption. His tearful pleas for mercy were heart-rending to all but the cruel duke, who demanded that Emilia surrender her body to him. The novice took a deep breath before delivering her valedictory speech.
Hold still, dread lord.
Duty and conscience wrestle in my mind.
I owe obedience to a royal duke,
The voice of death in Parma here,
A mighty power before whom subjects quake
And even high-born nobles bend the knee
In supplication. My duty tells me
Straight I should comply with your imperious
Wish, abjure vain protest, set modesty
Aside, cast off these holy garments now,
Lie in thy bed and submit me to my
Grisly fate. But conscience rebels against
This foul, disgusting and debasing act.
I have a higher duty to myself
And God, who made me and who guides
In this fell hour. No royal lecher will
Defile me, betray my most sacred vows
And take my virgin purity away.
I am a bride of Christ and will not serve
The carnal lust of man, whate'er his rank.
Away, thou hideous beast that preys on
Innocence! Sooner than live to give thee
Satisfaction, I die upon this bed,
Pure and unsullied to the end as now
I join my God and my salvation.
Before Cosimo, Duke of Parma could stop her, Emilia put a tiny flask of poison to her lips and drained it in one gulp. The effect was startling. After convulsing with sudden pain, she fell across the bed and swiftly expired. The duke suspected a ruse and shook her angrily to revive her, but the girl was now beyond his reach. In a fit of pique, he flung her down on the bed only to be disturbed by his steward with the news that, under torture, the cardinal had admitted that Emilia was the duke's own illegitimate child, a secret he had gleaned in the confessional box from the mother who had begged him to keep it from Emilia herself.
Cosimo was distraught. He had, in effect, murdered his own daughter. Remorse finally entered his heart and he knelt beside the corpse in an attitude of grief, weeping real tears as he blamed himself for the tragedy and repented of his wickedness. Lawrence Firethorn was superb. He achieved the impossible. Having outraged the spectators only minutes before with his merciless treatment of Emilia, he now contrived to win their sympathy for his plight. When he announced that he was not fit to live among decent, Christian people, he pulled out his dagger and plunged it deep into his heart before falling at the feet of the daughter whom he had tried to ravish.
The steward summoned servants and both bodies were carried from the stage with great dignity. A stunned silence followed the end of the play and it was only when the actor-manager led his troupe out again to take their bow that the spectators were released from their state of shock. Thunderous applause greeted the company. Lawrence Firethorn beamed, Barnaby Gill glowed, Owen Elias grinned broadly, James Ingram felt his blood pulsing and even George Dart, the tiny assistant stagekeeper, a reluctant actor who was required to play no less than six different supporting roles, all of them beyond his competence, managed a smirk of satisfaction.
Nicholas Bracewell was delighted with the warm reception accorded to The Insatiate Duke and he threw a glance up to the gallery, where a proud Lucius Kindell, overcome with emotion, was clapping as hard as anyone. The afternoon had been a great personal triumph for him but he was the first to concede that someone else deserved even more praise. Edmund Hoode had been heroic. Not only had he turned a serviceable play into a memorable theatrical experience, he had given a performance that blazed into the minds of the onlookers. Firethorn, Gill and the others might strut and preen and blow elaborate kisses of gratitude, but the man who was enjoying the ovation the most was Cardinal Boccherini.
Poised and impassive, a very monument of Christian virtue, he gave no hint of the laughter which bubbled away inside him. Edmund Hoode's happiness slipped into delirium.
The Insatiate Duke was good for business. Spectators who had been alternately excited and harrowed by the play now poured into the taproom of the Queen's Head to slake their thirst, to discuss the wondrous tragedy they had witnessed or to calm their shattered nerves with strong drink. The inn was packed to capacity and its drawers and servingmen were stretched to meet the needs of the seething mass of customers.
Any other landlord would have been thrilled by the sight of so much ale and wine being sold but not Alexander Marwood. Seasoned in misery, wedded to pessimism and lacking the merest spectre of light in the darkness of his existence he found even the infrequent moments of good fortune occasions for complaint rather than celebration.
'Look at them!' he moaned. 'They will drink us dry. They will eat us out of house and home. They will consume us!'
'We will make a tidy profit,' said his wife.
'But at what cost, Sybil?'
'None to you, sir. You simply have to look on.'
'Aye,' said Marwood with a morose leer. 'Look on and suffer. With so large and unruly a crowd as this, I fear for my benches, I worry about my tables, I am desperately concerned for the safety of my furniture. Damage will soon come, mark my words. An affray will soon start. I do not simply look on, dear wife. I quail, I pine, I suffer!'
Sybil Marwood inflated her chest, folded her arms beneath her surging bosom and drew herself up to her full height.
'There will be no trouble while I am here, Alexander.'
The landlord nodded in agreement at the grim boast. Big-boned and brawny, his wife had a basilisk stare which could quell the wildest of revellers and a tongue which could lash with the force of a whip. As one who had suffered both her stare and her stinging rebuke on a regular basis, Marwood could appreciate why she held such sway over their patrons. Even in such a rowdy assembly as the one before them, Sybil loomed large. While she remained, the merriment would always stay good-humoured and never spill over into violence.
'There is one consolation.' Marwood sighed.
'What is that, husband?'
'Rose is not here to get caught up in all this.'
'She should be,' said his wife, irritably. 'To serve this many mouths, we need every pair of hands we can get. Where is the girl? Rose's place is here.'
'Be grateful that she is elsewhere, Sybil.'
'Because of the relief it yields.'
'What relief? You talk in riddles.'
'I would hate any daughter of mine to be pitched into this sea of iniquity,' he said with a shiver. 'Drunken men are dangerous. Let a woman pass through a crowd like this and she would be groped and kissed unmercifully. Rose is spared that.'
'Nonsense!' snorted the other. 'I have pushed my way into the heart of this throng and not a single finger was laid upon my person, womanly though it is. There is no danger.'
'To you, perhaps not. But Rose's case is different. This taproom would be a place of dire peril to her. The girl is still young and innocent, Sybil. She lacks your experience and strength of mind. You are a mature woman. Our daughter has none of your ... of your ... of your ...'
His voice trailed away as the wifely stare transfixed him to the spot and deprived him of coherent speech. Marwood felt the familiar icicles forming once more on his spine.
'Go on,' she urged through gritted teeth. 'My what?'
Marwood mouthed words that refused to be translated into sound. Sweat moistened his brow. He essayed an appeasing smile but it looked more like a bold sneer. A violent twitch broke out on his lower lip, another on his right ear and a third on his left eyebrow. He slapped at his face wildly as if trying to swat a series of troublesome flies but he only succeeded in dispersing the twitches to new locations. Additional activity was soon set off until his whole visage was in a state of frenzied animation. Unprepossessing at the best of times, Marwood was now positively grotesque.
Sybil did not let him off the hook of her displeasure.
'Rose does not have my what?' she demanded.
He wanted to say 'authority' but the word was still-born on the sawdust of his tongue. After experimenting with a dozen other words which might have assuaged her, he finally found one which consented to be spoken aloud.
'Beauty,' he croaked.
It was the most ridiculous and inappropriate word to use of the gargoyle which confronted him and Marwood realised it at once, letting out a death rattle of a laugh at the sheer absurdity of such a description. What he had once ruinously mistaken for beauty in his wife had, on closer acquaintance, revealed itself to be no more than a deceptive willingness to please masking a hard-edged and unlovely countenance.
'Do you mock me, sir?' she snarled.
'No, my love. Of course not, my angel.'
'Yes,' he gabbled. 'Your beauty, your beauty.'
'Rose does not have my beauty?'
'True, Sybil. So true, so true!'
'So false, you wretch! she scolded. 'Are you blind? Are you insane? Beauty is the one thing that Rose has inherited from me. Everyone has remarked upon it. Everyone but you, that is. Rose may lack my grace, but she is as beautiful as her mother.'
'Yes, yes!' He was ready to agree to any illusion.
'A moment ago, you denied it.'
'I was wrong, Sybil.'
'As always,' he echoed gloomily.
Marwood had learned to take the line of least resistance against his wife. It was the only way to make life under the same roof as her at all more tolerable. Since he could never hope for any pleasure in bed with her, he devoted his energies to reducing the pain which she routinely afflicted on him. How was it, he often asked himself, that motherhood seemed to soften most women yet had had the opposite effect on Sybil, turning her instead into a flinty harridan? It was unjust.
'Have you spoken with Master Firethorn yet?' she asked.
'I am on my way to do so even now.'
'Keep him to the terms of the contract.'
'Left to me, there would be no contract,' he grumbled. 'We do not need that band of lecherous actors, prancing about on a stage in our yard, performing lewd, ungodly plays and bringing all the dregs of London into our premises.'
'No,' she said with heavy sarcasm, 'and we do not need money to buy food, drink and shelter for ourselves and our daughter. Westfield's Men make the Queen's Head one of the most popular inns in the cityas you can well see, Alexander. Look around you, man! These people are not here for the dubious thrill of meeting you. The players brought them in, which is why we must renew the contract with Westfield's Men.'
'On the terms we stipulate.'
'That goes without saying.'
'I will certainly say it to Master Firethorn,' vowed her husband. 'And to Nicholas Bracewell. He will be party to the discussion.'
'Dear Nicholas!' cooed his wife with an almost girlish giggle. 'Such a gentleman in every way! How can you rail at the company when they have someone like Nicholas Bracewell in their ranks? I tell you this, sir. If I could have the choosing of a husband for Rose, I would look no further than him. It would be a joy to have him in the family.'
'Joy?' he repeated dully. 'What is that?'
At that moment, Sybil caught a glimpse of her missing daughter through the window, and the frost returned at once to her face and voice. She brushed her husband roughly aside.
'Out of my way, sir. I want to speak to Rose.'
'Keep her out of this bear pit,' he said, gazing in dismay around the taproom. 'Her virtue would be in danger.'