Authors: Martin Chatterton
To the estimable Mr Gregory Rogers:
thanks for the loan of your quillâMC
For Matt: my rusty ol' bucket o' boltsâGR
Little Hare Books
an imprint of
Hardie Grant Egmont
85 High Street
Prahran, Victoria, 3181, Australia
Text copyright Â© Martin Chatterton 2011
Cover illustrations and internal silhouette illustrations
copyright Â© Gregory Rogers 2011
Full-page internal illustrations copyright Â© Martin Chatterton 2011
First published 2011
First published in this edition 2011
All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording or otherwise, without the prior written permission of the publisher.
National Library of Australia
Cataloguing-in-Publication entry available upon request
ISBN 978 1 742736 06 8 (epub)
Cover design by Luke and Vida Kelly
Willy was a little disappointed to discover that the streets of London were not paved with gold. They were, in fact, filthy.
It had been dark when the Black Skulls arrived the previous evening in an area of London called Slaughterside. They'd gone straight to their lodgings at Mrs McScottish's boarding house. And it was still dark when they'd trudged to the Billericay Bowl theatre that morning to begin rehearsals for their popular play,
The Sheeted Dead.
So this was Willy's first real chance to get a good look at the city in all its bustling, glitzy,
Londony glory. The dirty streets didn't put a dent in Willy's good mood. In every other way, London was exactly as he'd hoped it would be.
As he and Yorick started down the theatre steps, a knot of paparazzi buzzed into life, parchment pads and quills at the ready. But they sank back with a groan when they realised it was no one famous. It was just a scrawny-looking eleven-year-old country bumpkin and, behind him, a great hairy lump of a man, who looked as though he'd be more at home wrestling bears.
The paparazzi, along with a small band of fans known as the âUtter Nutters', were camped outside the theatre for one reason only. They were hoping to catch a glimpse of Olly Thesp, the lead performer with the Black Skulls, England's most famous theatrical troupe. Yorick, the Skulls all-round Mr Fix-It, and his new dogsbody, Willy, clearly didn't count as stars.
Yorick shouldered his way through the Nutters, and onto the crowded street, with Willy close behind. At the foot of the steps, Willy paused and looked down Denmark Lane, to where the River Thames could be glimpsed between the buildings. Willy threw his head back, closed his eyes and flared his nostrils to suck in some London air whenâ¦
The contents of a bucket of slops hit Willy full in the face and sent him spluttering to his knees, his head and shoulders covered in revolting goop.
âWot you doin' standin' in the way, you great bletherin' bumpkin?' yelled a woman from an overhanging balcony. âCan't you see I'm tryin' to clean me billet?'
Willy scraped the worst of the slops from his face and spat into the gutter. A mangy dog barked at him and, in his haste to get away from it, Willy spun around and banged his
head against something. That something was a beggar's knee.
âDo you mind?' said the beggar, shaking a grimy bandaged hand at Willy. A bit of the beggarâpossibly a fingerâfell off and bounced into the gutter. âOh, bleedin' marvellous,' he said. âFanks fer nuffink, chum.'
âC'mon, Waggledagger,' said Yorick. âThere's no time fer lazin' about! This is London, old son. We got fings to do, people to see.'
âButâ¦' spluttered Willy. He scrambled to his feet, blinking furiously.
âNo “buts”, matey!' said Yorick. âLet's go.'
âSundial?' hissed a low voice next to Willy's ear.
Willy turned to see a scruffy individual holding open his greasy cloak to reveal a row of small wooden sundials pinned inside.
âExcuse me?' said Willy.
âSundials, chief. Best you can get this side of the river. Genuine 'andmade timepieces these
are, accurate to wivvin five hours! Only 'alf a penny to you, squire. Robbin' meself blind, I am.'
Yorick shoved his fist in the man's face and wiggled it about. The man inspected it carefully.
âThat's right, Marlowe, take a good look at it,' said Yorick. âNow clear orf, afore I give you an even closer look. The lad's new in town and 'e don't want no stolen sundials, right?'
Marlowe backed away, clutching his sundials to his chest. âSeein' as yer in a bad frame o' mind,' he said, turning away, âI'll take me bizness elsewhere.'
Yorick shook his head at Marlowe's retreating back. âYou be careful, Waggledagger,' he said. âLondon's got more iffy characters than one of Walden's plays. They'll take yer money faster than you can say “ching-ching”.'
âI haven't got any money,' said Willy.
âDon't matter,' said Yorick. âThey'll still take it, you mark my words.'
He turned on his heel, pushed his way through a gaggle of black-clad priests, and set off towards Burgess's, London's finest theatrical supply shop. Yorick was on a mission to find some long hoses for his new fog machine. He was very excited about the fog machine and was keen to get it rigged up as soon as possible.
Willy brushed as much of the filth from his tunic as he could and scampered after the big man.
âDo try an' keep up, Waggledagger!' snapped Yorick. âThis fog machine will be jist the fing to start everyfink off perfick. If we impress the audience wiv a good job, it'll make it easier fer you to stay in the Skulls!'
Willy picked up the pace. He wanted to stay in the Black Skulls more than anything else in the world, even though he was just a lowly
gofer. He didn't mind running errands or doing dirty jobs because he felt at home in the Skulls. Without their help, Willy would still be in Stratford. He'd still be working for his horrible, red-faced father in the family tannery, and getting spanked at least once a day.
Willy shuddered and turned his attention back to Yorick, who was still talking.
âWe gotta get everyfink jist right if we want to impress the King!' Yorick said.
âI thought we had a
said Willy. âWe met up with her last week, remember? You almost
King,' snorted Yorick, swerving between a man carrying three geese in a basket, and a ragged gang of child pickpockets. âAlthough, as far as theatre folk are concerned, 'e might as well be.'
Yorick broke off to lift a pickpocket's hand from Willy's tunic. âLorst summink, 'ave you?'
he said, and cuffed the pickpocket across the back of the head.
The child went sprawling into a flock of sheep.
âWhere woz I?' said Yorick. âOh, yeah, the King. This bloke is the court-appointed Big Cheese. The Master of the Revels being 'is proper title, although everyone in the game calls 'im the King of Denmark Lane. Got it?'
Willy nodded doubtfully. âEr, I think so. What's his name, this “King”?'
Yorick scratched his beard. âGood question, Waggledagger. Last time I woz in London it woz summink like 'Arold 'Ardwick. No, wait, it woz a bit more fancy than that. Lots of letter “a”s in it, I remember that.
that's right. Aaron Aardvark Ardent.'
Willy's mouth fell open. He skidded to a halt in front of a chestnut stall.
â'Ungry?' said the stallholder, thrusting a handful of shrivelled nuts under Willy's nose.
Willy waved the man away impatiently. This was no time for nuts. âDid you say
he asked Yorick.
âAaron Aardvark Ardent. Funny name. Why?' said Yorick.
âBecause,' said Willy, âhe's my uncle!'
The trip to Burgess's supply shop passed in a daze. Normally, Willy would have been spellbound by the costumes, props and specialeffects gadgets that filled the tiny shop. But today he couldn't stop thinking about the amazing news that he was related to the King of Denmark Lane.
He picked up a full-size witch's cauldron, and absent-mindedly flicked a switch at the back, setting off a flashpot concealed inside.
A flash of light blinded two shoppers behind him. They stumbled into a display of papier-mÃ¢chÃ© weaponry, which collapsed with
the sound of ripping paper and splintering wood. Fake cannonballs rolled all over the shop floor.
Bertie Burgess went ballistic. â'Ere! You watch what yer doin'!' he yelled.
Willy hardly noticed. All he knew was his Uncle Aaron was the most important man in London theatre! Now he could stay with his friends in the Skulls forever and never have to worry about his father again.
Bertie Burgess was arguing with Yorick about who was going to pay for the damage.
âYou shouldn't be leavin' dangerous equipment around the place, Bertie,' said Yorick. âIf young Waggledagger's injured 'imself, you could be in big trouble, my son! You
know 'is uncle is the King of Denmark Lane?'
Bertie looked at Willy and closed his mouth.
Leaving Bertie scratching his head, Yorick trotted towards Willy. âC'mon, Waggledagger,' he said, putting an arm around Willy's
shoulders and steering him towards the door. âI got me 'oses for the fog machine. Now let's 'op it back to the theatre before you blows up the rest of London.'
An hour or so later, Yorick and Willy gathered the Skulls together to give them the eyepopping news that Willy was related to the King of Denmark Lane. Willy, grinning from ear to ear, sat on the edge of the Billericay Bowl stage. The Black Skulls formed a circle around him.
âWhat are you looking so pleased about?' scowled Olly Thesp. He began to buff his already-shining nails. âYou're interrupting rehearsals of the new play! Of which I am the star!'
Yorick ignored Olly. He jabbed an elbow in Willy's ribs. âGo on, son,' he said. âTell 'em wot you told me. Go on, go on!'
âAll right, Yorick, give me a chance,' said
Willy. He rubbed his ribs and looked at the Skulls. âMy uncle is Aaron Aardvark Ardent. Yorick thinks he might be the same Aaron Aardvark Ardent who's the King of Denmark Lane.'
There was a gasp of disbelief from Olly, and a clatter as he dropped his nail-buffer.
âNo “might” about it,' beamed Yorick. âThe lad's connected, Charlie!'
âUncle, eh?' said Charlie Ginnell, the Black Skulls manager. He put down the accounts books he'd been poring over, and began pacing back and forth in front of Willy. His belly jutted out like the rounded prow of a Thames river barge. âAaron Ardent, the Master of the Revels, the King of Denmark Lane, the most important man in the whole of London theatreland is your
âI refuse to believe it!' cried Olly. âHow could this whey-faced infant be related to Ardent? It's impossible!'
Willy tried to ignore Olly. âI think it's him, Charlie,' he said. âI remember Uncle Aaron from when I was small. He disappeared when I was about five years old. He was always eating carrotsâthat's partly why I remember him so clearly. And after he disappeared, my mother sometimes talked about him. But not often, because of my father. You know what my father's like about the theatre.'
âYou can say that again,' said Minty Macvelli, the Skulls warm-up act. He was holding Minimac, his ventriloquist's dummy, on his lap, and they both rolled their eyes. Willy's father had once made a memorable entrance at a Skulls show in Stratford.
Willy shuddered as he remembered being chased around the theatre by Sir Victor Vile, a gang of Royal Codpieces and his fatherâevery one of them keen to give him the spanking of his life, when all he'd done was sneak in to watch the play.
be him!' said Elbows McNamara, the Irish fiddler. He waved his fiddle bow in the air with delight. âWhat a stroke of luck for the Skulls to be connected to such an important bloke!'
Willy smiled. This uncle thing was great!
âVery convenient for you, eh, Waggledagger?' said Minimac slyly. âYou quite certain there ever was an uncle back there in whichever hick town you come from?'
Minty clamped a hand over the doll's mouth.
âStow it, you 'orrible little jumped-up log,' hissed Yorick. âBefore I turns you into firewood.'
Walden Kemp, the Skulls writer, looked up from his sheet of parchment. âElbows is right,' he said. His eyes were shining. âThis is a wonderful stroke of luck. With your uncle as the King of Denmark Lane, we can't go wrong! Just think: one of the Black Skulls related to the King!'
âWho'd have thought,' said Minty, âthat a little country mouse like you would be related to someone important like Ardent?'
Olly gazed at Willy with new-found appreciation. âI've always known there was something special about you,' he said, smiling the famous Thesp smile and ruffling Willy's hair.
âThanks, Olly,' said Willy.
âUncle Aaron, the King of Denmark Street,' said Charlie, rubbing his hands together. âThis'll help bring home the bacon and no mistake!'
There was a snort of laughter from near the entrance to the theatre.
âI wouldn't be countin' yer chickens quite so fast if I were you,' wheezed a thin woman, who was pinning a poster to the theatre door. It was Morticia Coil, the Billericay Bowl's manager.
Morticia finished with the poster and shuffled forward to the stage. A clay pipe was wedged between her greenish teeth.
âWhat's the big joke, Morty?' said Yorick.
Morty shrugged. âWell, it's not really a joke at all. Especially not for poor old Ardent, God rest his soul.'
There was a short silence.
âYou make it sound like he's dead,' said Willy.
Morty took out her pipe and jabbed the end of it in Willy's direction. âI hate to be the bearer of bad news, old bean, but the fact is that old Ardent
dead. Just last week! Brown bread. Popped his clogs. Pushing up daisies. Six feet under. Extinct. No more. Gone from thisââ'
âAll right, Morty,' said Yorick. âWe get the picture. He woz the lad's uncle after all. Show a bit o' respect.'
Morty Coil looked at Willy. âSorry, I wasn't thinking,' she said.
Willy didn't say anything. He couldn't. His throat seemed to have seized up.
I should have known it was all too good to
be true! he thought to himself. His dreams of sharing his love of theatre life with his kindly uncle had been shattered.
Yorick shot a furious glance in Morty's direction. He patted Willy on the back. âYou all right, Waggledagger?' he said.
Willy didn't reply. He wasn't all right. Not only had he lost Uncle Aaron, he'd also lost his new-found status in the Black Skulls. Willy had once been butted in the stomach by a goat. That was how he felt now.
Charlie climbed onto the stage and went over to Willy. âVery sad, Waggledagger,' he said. âOur thoughts are with you. Pity, really. We could have used a friendly connection. Still,' he continued, smiling, âthe new King might not be such a bad chap.'
said Morty, fiddling with her pipe.
âWhat?' said Charlie. âWho
the new King of Denmark Lane, Morty?'
Willy wasn't listening. He didn't give a
flaming fig who the new King was. He only knew Uncle Aaron was dead.
Morty opened her mouth to reply. But she never got the chance.
The main doors to the theatre flew open and a chill air blew in from the street. A short, round man with a beetroot-coloured face and piggy eyes buried in folds of fat bustled towards the stage. He wore baggy black velvet pantaloons and a black silk coat. He was followed by two hulking brutes, also dressed from head to toe in black.
Morticia Coil took one look at the new arrivals and slipped silently through a side door.
The fat man came to a halt and glared at the Skulls. His chins wobbled like jelly and his pantaloons billowed like the sails of an overladen galleon. He was breathing heavily and dabbing at his forehead with a lace kerchief.
âWhich wapscallion is in charge of this gang of wevolting wotters?' he squealed in a
high-pitched voice, once his chins had stopped quivering. âI have heard on the gwapevine that you are nothing but a collection of ordinawy stwolling players. And it is me you must impwess if you are to perform under the Woyal Seal of Appwoval!'
The man peered up at him suspiciously. âSomething amusing you?' he squeaked.
Yorick shook his head. âNo, jist a bit of a cough, squire.'
Charlie stepped towards the edge of the stage and held out his hand. âCharlie Ginnell at your service,' he said. âNow what can I do for you, Mrâ¦?'
The man inspected Charlie's hand as if it were something revolting. âSkellington,' he said. âSir Anstwuther Skellington.'
âSir Anstruther Skellington?' said Charlie, turning pale. âSir Victor Vile's cousin?'
Willy was jolted out of his misery at the
mention of his old enemy. Sir Victor had never forgiven Willy for sneaking into his theatre in Stratford and tickling the Queen's bum with a false beard.
âYes!' squeaked Skellington. âSir Anstwuther Skellington, new chairman of the Theatwical Mowals Board. Otherwise known asââ'
âYou're not the new King of Denmark Lane?' gasped Willy. Things seemed to be going from bad to worse. Not only had Willy lost his only uncle, this dangerous-looking buffoon had taken over Uncle Aaron's job.
âI have that honour,' said Skellington, a smug smile on his face. He waved a pudgy hand. âThat oaf Ardent was useless, quite useless. He allowed the theatres to become nothing more than places of
People enjoying themselves all over the place. It wasn't wight! So I set up the Theatwical Mowals Board in order to stop such madness! People can't be allowed to have fun whenever
they feel like it!' He broke off and eyed Willy. âAnd who might you be, impudent youth?'
âWilliam Shakeâ¦I mean, Willy Waggledagger,' stammered Willy.
âWell, which is it? William Shake or Willy Waggledagger?' snorted Skellington. He leaned close and prodded Willy with a fat finger. âAre you such a wevolting little wotter that you don't know your own name?'
âWelaxâI mean, relax,' said Yorick. âThe boy's jist 'ad some bad news.' He put a spadelike hand on Skellington's arm and gently pulled him away.
The two goons behind Skellington growled and lumbered forward. They were so big that, for a moment, Willy thought two of the pillars holding up the theatre roof had moved. Olly ducked behind a curtain. Yorick didn't blink, but he did take his hand off Skellington's arm.
âA death in the family,' Charlie said quickly. âHis uncle died. Ardent, as it happens.'
Skellington took a step back, his eyebrows raised. âArdent was your uncle?' he said to Willy. Then he tittered. A repulsive smirk shivered across his face.
He turned to his goons. âDid you hear that, Wosenbloom, Goldstein? Oh that is too, too funny!'
He turned back to Willy. âYou know that it was
who found the wetched cweature dead, don't you?'
Willy shook his head.
âDwowned, he was,' continued Skellington. âIn a bowl of Pig's Ear soup. Is that a wespectable way for a gwown man to go? Pathetic!'
At the mention of the soup, Willy frowned. There was something about that story that didn't feel right, some detail that was just
But Willy couldn't think what that was.
He glared at Skellington. âDon't call my uncle pathetic!' he cried. âIf anyone's pathetic it'sââ'