was one particular point that he wanted clarified.

'What of the theft of Gloriana Triumphant? he asked.

'That puzzled me, too,' said Nicholas. 'When the book was stolen from me, I thought it was another blow at Westfield's Men. Yet why should Ruff and his accomplice seek to wound the company? It was in their interests to ensure that it thrived.'

'So what lay behind it?' wondered Hoode.

'Religion. Your play was a celebration of the victory over the Spanish Armada and the defeat of Roman Catholicism. It offended them and their faith. That is why they tried to stop the performance.'

'Nobody can stop a performance by Westfield's Men!' asserted Firethorn grandly. 'We have foiled a plot to kill our own dear Queen and we have rendered our country a sterling service. But we still have unfinished business here. Gentlemen, we play before our sovereign this night. Let us prepare ourselves for this supreme moment in our history. Dick Honeydew has shown us the way. Onward to another royal triumph!'


The Loyal Subject was staged at midnight with reverberating success. Its themes gained extra resonance from the thwarted assassination attempt and it caught the mood of the hour to perfection. The whole Court surrendered itself to a unique and stirring experience. Richmond Palace was alive with unstinted praise.

Presiding over it all was Queen Elizabeth herself, who occupied her throne in a spirit of happy gratitude. She was ostentation itself. She wore a dress in the Spanish fashion with a round stiff-laced collar above a dark bodice 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 on to the dais. As befitted a sovereign, her radiance outshone the entire Court.

To repair the absence of Ruff--and to assuage Tallis's rampant fears--Nicholas Bracewell took over the small role of the executioner himself. With a measured sweep of the axe, he severed the wax head and sent the head spinning across the floor. The effect was breathtaking. Deathly silence held sway for a full minute before applause broke out. After exhibiting the head of the traitor, Nicholas went off to take up his book again.

Richard Honeydew had played his part already. He now stayed in the tiring-house with the others and sneaked an occasional look at the action on stage. Westfield's Men were at their best. The music was excellent, the costumes superb and the performances quite remarkable. Martin Yeo won plaudits for his youthful brilliance as the Duchess of Milan, Barnaby Gill supplied some stately comedy as a wrinkled retainer and Edmund Hoode was a suitably judicious judge.

Lawrence Firethorn was charismatic as Lorenzo and he caused many a flutter among the ladies. Constrained by the presence of her husband, Lady Rosamund Varley could only watch and sigh. Her erstwhile swain was no longer aiming his performance at her. It was directed to a higher station. Lorenzo was patently acting for his Queen and country.

At Firethorn's request, Hoode had written a new couplet to end the play. It related the capture of Samuel Ruff to the action of the drama. Firethorn made the two lines ring with conviction as he laid them proudly at the feet of his sovereign.

'For I alone have turned aside the traitor's baneful blade

And now his spotted soul for aye will wander Hades' shade.'

An ovation ensued.

Lord Westfield himself basked in the approval of the Court. The company had markedly improved the standing of their patron with the Queen. By the same token, the Earl of Banbury sat in sour-faced discomfort as he touched his palms together in reluctant applause. Westfield's Men had carried the day in every sense. His own company was obliterated from the memory.

After taking several bows, the players adjourned to the tiring-house. A communal ecstasy seized them. They had succeeded beyond all expectation. It was a fitting climax to the year's work.

Firethorn swooped down on his book holder.

'Stop hiding away in that corner, Nick!'

'I was merely reflecting on events, master.'

'There is no time for that, dear heart,' urged the other, pummelling his arm. 'Her Majesty wishes to favour us. She has asked to meet the principal members of the company.'

'Who else is there but you?' teased Nicholas gently.

'How profoundly true!' agreed Firethorn without a trace of irony. 'Take charge, Nick. Be swift, sir.'

'Whom should I call?'

'Use your discretion. It has always served us well.'

Nicholas organized a line-up of the principal artistes, making sure that Richard Honeydew was given pride of place. Queen Elizabeth was conducted up on to the stage to be introduced to each one of them in turn by the fawning actor-manager. She praised Edmund Hoode for his play and she congratulated Barnaby Gill on his amusing antics.

When she showered her personal thanks upon Richard, the boy was duly overwhelmed. Being so close to the royal person reduced him to open-mouthed wonder. His performance had helped to save the Queen from the attack yet it now seemed a gross impertinence even to try to impersonate her.

With a becoming lack of modesty, Lawrence Firethorn claimed much of the credit for himself and wished to be remembered as her loyal subject in thought, word and deed. He gave the impression that he alone was responsible for keeping the Queen's head firmly on her shoulders.

Nicholas Bracewell stayed quietly behind the scenes.

The End

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