'I wish to resolve this matter with him.'


'I demand it!'

But the howled demand went unsatisfied. Conscious of the disturbance that the author was creating, Nicholas decided to get him away from the courtyard. Before he knew what was happening, Roger Bartholomew was ushered firmly into a private room, lowered into a seat and served with a pint of sack. Nicholas, meanwhile, poured words of praise and consolation into his ear, slowly subduing him and deflecting him from his intended course of action.

Lawrence Firethorn was the manager, chief sharer and leading actor with Lord Westfield's Men. His book holder was not shielding him from an encounter with a disappointed author. Rather was he protecting the latter from an experience that would scar his soul and bring his career in the theatre to a premature conclusion. Roger Bartholomew might be seething with righteous anger but he was no match for the tempest that was Lawrence Firethorn. At all costs, he had to be spared that. Nicholas had seen much stronger characters destroyed by a man who could explode like a powder keg at the slightest criticism of his art. It was distressing to watch.

Allowances had to be made for the fact that Master Roger Bartholomew was a novice, lately come from Oxford, where his tutors held a high opinion of him and where his poetry had won many plaudits. He was clever, if arrogant, and sufficiently well-versed in the drama to be able to craft a play of some competence. The Tragical History of Richard the Lionheart had promise and even some technical merit. What it lacked in finesse, it made up for in simple integrity. It was overwritten in some parts and under-written in others but it was somehow held together by its patriotic impulse.

London was hungry for new plays and the companies were always in search of them. Lawrence Firethorn had accepted the apprentice work because it offered him a superb central role that he could tailor to suit his unique talents. It might be a play that smouldered without ever bursting into flame but it could still entertain an audience for a couple of hours and it would not disgrace the growing reputation of Lord Westfield's Men.

'I expected so much more,' confided the author as the drink turned his fury into wistfulness. 'I had hopes, Nicholas.'

'They'll not be dashed.'

'I felt so betrayed as I sat there this morning.'

'Rehearsals often deceive.'

'Where is my play! '

It was a cry from the heart and Nicholas was touched. Like others before him, Roger Bartholomew was learning the awful truth that an author did not occupy the exalted position that he imagined. Lord Westfield's Men, in fact, consigned him to a fairly humble station. The young Oxford scholar had been paid five pounds for his play and he had seen King Richard make his first entrance in a cloak that cost ten times that amount. It was galling.

Nicholas softened the blow with kind words as best he could, but there was something that could not be concealed from the wilting author. Lawrence Firethorn never regarded a play as an expression of poetic genius. He viewed it merely as a scaffold on which he could shout and strut and dazzle his public. It was his conviction that an audience came solely to see him act and not to watch an author write.

'What am I to do, Nicholas?' pleaded Bartholomew.

'Bear with us.'

'I'll be mocked by everyone.'

'Have faith.'

After giving what reassurance he could, the book holder left him staring into the remains of his sack and wishing that he had never left the University. They had taken him seriously there. The groves of academe had nurtured a tender plant which could not survive in the scorching heat of the playhouse.

Nicholas, meanwhile, hurried back to the yard where the preparations continued apace. The stage was a rectangle of trestles that jutted out into the middle of the yard from one wall. Green rushes, mixed with aromatic herbs, had been strewn over the stage to do battle with the stink of horse dung from the nearby stables. When the audience pressed around the acting area, there would be the competing smells of bad breath, beer, tobacco, garlic, mould, tallow and stale sweat to keep at bay. Nicholas observed that servingmen were perfuming large ewers in the shadows so that spectators would have somewhere to relieve themselves during the performance.

As soon as he appeared, everyone converged on him for advice or instruction-Thomas Skillen, the stagekeeper, Hugh Wegges, the tireman, Will Fowler, one of the players, John Tallis, an apprentice, Matthew Lipton, the scrivener, and the distraught Peter Digby, leader of the musicians, who was still mortified that he had sent Richard the Lionheart to his grave with the wrong funeral march. Questions, complaints and requests bombarded the book holder but he coped with them all.

A tall, broad-shouldered man with long fair hair and a full beard, Nicholas Bracewell remained even-tempered as the stress began to tell on his colleagues. He asserted himself without having to raise his voice and his soft West Country accent was a balm to their ears. Ruffled feathers were smoothed, difficulties soon resolved. Then a familiar sound boomed out.

'Nick, dear heart! Come to me.'

Lawrence Firethorn had made a typically dramatic entrance before moving to his accustomed position at the centre of the stage. After almost three years with the company, Nicholas could still be taken aback by him. Firethorn had tremendous presence. A sturdy, barrel-chested man of medium height, he somehow grew in stature when he trod the boards. The face had a flashy handsomeness that was framed by wavy black hair and set off by an exquisitely pointed beard. There was a true nobility in his bearing which belied the fact that he was the son of a village blacksmith.

'Where have you been, Nick?' he enquired.

'Talking with Master Bartholomew.'

'That scurvy knave!'

'It is his play,' reminded Nicholas.

'He's an unmannerly rogue!' insisted the actor. 'I could run him through as soon as look at him.'


'Why? Why, sir? Because that dog had the gall to scowl at me throughout the entire rehearsal. I'll not put up with it, Nick. I'll not permit scowls and frowns and black looks at my performance. Keep him away from me.'

'He sends his apologies,' said Nicholas tactfully.

'Hang him!'

Firethorn's rage was diverted by a sudden peal of bells from a neighbouring church. Since there were well over a hundred churches in the capital, there always seemed to be bells tolling somewhere and it was a constant menace to open air performance. The high galleries of the inn yard could muffle the pandemonium outside in 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

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