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.

'Well, Nick?'

'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 stagekeepers 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 twopence 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, silkweavers, 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 leathered 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!'

His gesture and movement were hypnotic but it was his voice that was his chief asset. It could subdue the spectators with a whisper or thrill them with a shout like the report of a cannon. In his own inimitable way, he made yet another play his personal property.

His finest moment came at the climax of the drama. King Richard was besieging the castle of Chalus and he strode up to its walls to assess any weaknesses. An arbelester came out on to the battlements--the balcony at the rear of the stage--and fired his crossbow. The bolt struck Richard between the neck and shoulder where his chain mail was unlaced.

For this vital part of the action, Firethorn used an effect that had been suggested by Nicholas Bracewell. The bolt was hidden up the actor's sleeve. As the crossbow twanged, he let out a yell of pain and brought both hands up to his neck with the bolt between them. The impact made him stagger across the stage. It was all done with such perfect timing that the audience was convinced they had actually seen the bolt fly through the air.

Richard now proceeded to expire with the aid of a twenty-line speech in halting verse. After writhing in agony on the ground, he died a soldier's death before being borne off--to the correct funeral music, on cue--by his men.

Thunderous applause greeted the cast when they came out to take their bow and a huge cheer went up when Lawrence Firethorn appeared. He basked in the acclaim for several minutes then gave one last, deep bow and took his leave. Once again he had wrested an extraordinary performance out of rather ordinary material.

Everyone went home happy. Except Roger Bartholomew.


Nicholas Bracewell had no chance to relax. Having controlled the play from his position in the tiring-house, he now had to take charge of the strike party. Costumes had to be collected, properties gathered up, the stage cleared and the trestles dismantled. Lord Westfield's Men would not be playing at The Queen's Head for another week and its yard was needed for its normal traffic of wagons and coaches. The debris left behind by almost a thousand people also had to be cleaned up. Rain added to the problems. Having held off until the audience departed, it now began to fall in earnest.

It was hours before Nicholas finally came to the end of a long day's work. He adjourned to the taproom for some bread and ale. Alexander Marwood came scurrying across to his table.

'How much was taken today, Master Bracewell?'

'I'm not sure.'

'There is the matter of my rent.'

'You'll be paid.'


'Soon,' promised Nicholas with more confidence than he felt. He knew only too well the difficulty of prising any money out of Lawrence Firethorn and spent a lot of his time explaining away his employer's meanness. 'Very soon, Master Marwood.'

'My wife thinks that I should put the rent up.'

'Wives are like that.'

Marwood gave a hollow laugh. The landlord of The Queen's Head was a short, thin, balding man in his fifties with a nervous twitch. His eager pessimism had etched deep lines in his forehead and put dark pouches under his eyes. Anxiety informed everything that he did or said.

Nicholas always took pains to be pleasant to Marwood. Lord Westfield's Men were trying to persuade the landlord to let them use the inn on a permanent basis and there were sound financial reasons why he might convert his premises to a playhouse. But Marwood had several doubts about the project, not least the fact that a City

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