Read The Counterfeit Crank Online

Authors: Edward Marston

Tags: #Fiction, #Mystery & Detective, #Historical, #rt, #tpl

The Counterfeit Crank

The Counterfeit Crank

An Elizabethan Mystery

E
DWARD
M
ARSTON

To Stuart Krichevsky

These that do counterfeit the crank be young knaves and young harlots, that deeply dissemble the falling sickness. For the crank in their language is the falling evil.

T
HOMAS
H
ARMAN
,
A Caveat for Common Cursitors,
1566

 

A slipper and subtle knave, a finder-out of occasions, that has an eye can stamp and counterfeit advantages, though true advantage never present itself; a devilish knave!

W
ILLIAM
S
HAKESPEARE
,
Othello
, 1604

‘What ails you?’ asked Nicholas Bracewell, peering at his friend with concern.

‘Nothing,’ said Edmund Hoode. ‘Nothing at all.’

‘Your face is pale and drawn.’

‘I am well, I do assure you.’

‘Your eyes are bloodshot.’

‘Pay no heed to that, Nick.’

‘Are you in pain?’

Hoode shook his head. ‘No, no.’

‘Yet I saw you wince even now.’

‘Only because of the mistakes I made in that last scene.’

‘That, too, was unlike the Edmund Hoode I know. You so rarely make mistakes.’

‘Even the best horse stumbles.’

Hoode smiled bravely but Nicholas was not fooled. The company’s book holder had worked so closely with his
friend over the years that he could always tell what the latter was thinking and feeling. Something was amiss. Hoode, the resident playwright with Westfield’s Men, was also a gifted actor and he was rehearsing a role for the first performance of
Caesar’s Fall,
a play by a new dramatist. Known for his reliability, he was uncharacteristically hesitant that morning, forgetting lines, inventing moves that had not been specified and, at one point, clumsily knocking over a piece of scenery in the Forum. They were in the yard of the Queen’s Head, the London inn where the company was based, and where they had to compete with the pandemonium of the market outside in Gracechurch Street. The sky was overcast. A cool breeze was blowing yet Nicholas thought he saw beads of sweat on Hoode’s brow.

‘Do you feel hot, Edmund?’ he said.

‘No more than usual.’

‘Not troubled by a fever, I hope?’

‘All that troubles me is this damnable memory of mine. It keeps failing me, Nick, and I’ll not abide that. I must serve the playwright much better than this.’ Hoode turned away. ‘Forgive me while I con my lines.’

Though he unrolled some parchment to check his speeches for the next scene, he really wanted to escape Nicholas’s scrutiny. Edmund Hoode felt distinctly unwell, but, not wishing to let the actors or the playwright down, he was being stoical, forcing himself to go on and trying to ignore the growing queasiness in his stomach. His head was pounding and sweat was starting to trickle down his face. He wiped it off with a sleeve.

Nicholas was not the only person to be worried about him during the break in rehearsal. Michael Grammaticus, author of
Caesar’s Fall,
looked even more anxious. He came across to the book holder.

‘What is wrong with Edmund this morning?’ he wondered.

‘I wish I knew, Michael.’

‘Does he always stumble so badly through a part?’

‘No,’ said Nicholas. ‘It’s a matter of pride with him to learn his lines. Edmund has great faith in your play. He strives to do his utmost on your behalf.’

‘He has been my greatest ally.’

‘How so?’

‘Without his help,
Caesar’s Fall
would never have reached the stage.’

‘You wrote it, Michael,’ Nicholas reminded him.

‘Yes,’ agreed the other, ‘but Edmund Hoode inspired it. Do you know how often I sat up there in the gallery, watching a performance of one of his plays and marvelling at its quality? It was he who first fired my ambition. Edmund was my teacher and the Queen’s Head, my school. I dreamt of the day when I would emulate him as an author.’

‘That day is at hand. Your play is set fair for success.’

‘Not if someone blunders through the role of Casca like that.’

Michael Grammaticus shot an anxious glance in the direction of Hoode.
Caesar’s Fall
was his first venture into the world of theatre and he had set great store by it. Having been taken up by the finest troupe in London,
he wanted to forge a partnership with them that would go well beyond the tragedy they were about to perform. Grammaticus was a tall, spare, phlegmatic man in his late twenties with a scholarly stoop and a habit of squinting. A graduate of Cambridge, he was steeped in learning, highly conscientious and – on the evidence of
Caesar’s Fall
– a talented playwright.

Nicholas understood why the man was so tense and nervous. The performance of a new play was always fraught with difficulty because the actors were translating it into live performance for the first time without having any idea how it would be received. On their makeshift stage in the inn yard, Westfield’s Men had launched many new works and not all had found favour. Some had simply bored the spectators, others had aroused them to such a pitch of anger that they had yelled abuse, hurled food and other missiles at the cast or just walked out in disgust. On such occasions, the first performance had also been the last. Grammaticus did not wish his play to meet that fate.

‘What is your opinion, Nick?’ he asked. ‘Does the piece
work
?’

‘It works very well, Michael. You could not have a more commanding Caesar than Lawrence Firethorn and he is ably supported by all the company. Have no fears,’ said Nicholas, putting a hand on his shoulder. ‘I sense that we may have a triumph on our hands. The story may be old but you have given it new life and direction. I have no qualms about what will happen when we present it before an audience.’

Grammaticus was relieved. ‘That contents me more than I can say.’

Nicholas Bracewell was the book holder and, as such, only a hired man with no financial stake in the company, but the newcomer had soon discovered how central a figure he was. Lawrence Firethorn, the actor-manager, might dazzle on stage along with the other sharers but it was Nicholas who controlled things behind the scenes and who helped to keep the troupe at the forefront of their profession. He was the solid foundation on which everything else rested and Grammaticus had especial reason to be grateful to him. Before buying a new play, Firethorn always sought Nicholas’s advice and the book holder had given his unequivocal approval to
Caesar’s Fall.
He had also devised some of its most dramatic effects on stage, enhancing its impact in the process.

‘Is Edmund ill, do you think?’ asked Grammaticus.

‘He denies it, Michael.’

‘What else could make him so disordered?’

Nicholas heaved a sigh. ‘There is one explanation.’

‘Pray, tell me what it is.’

‘Edmund is in love. He is ever inclined to wear his heart on his sleeve and there are times when it is too heavy to carry. Edmund gets distracted. But he will do his duty when the play is staged,’ Nicholas assured him. ‘Put him in front of an audience and a hundred unrequited loves would not divert him.’

‘I hope that it is so,’ said Grammaticus, screwing up his eyelids. ‘Casca is not a large role but it is an important one.’

Nicholas gave a nod of agreement then picked up a signal
from Lawrence Firethorn. It was time to resume. The book holder checked that the correct scenery had been set up on the stage then he called the cast to order. After reading his lines for the last time, Hoode thrust the scroll inside his doublet. He looked paler than ever and seemed to be in some distress, but he was determined to soldier on. They were about to rehearse the assassination of Julius Caesar. Before they did so, Firethorn issued a stern warning.

‘Strike as if you mean to kill,’ he ordered, ‘but be sure to move away once you have used your daggers. Above all else, I must be
seen
. Do not dare to cheat the audience by blocking their view, or you’ll answer to me. A mighty emperor deserves a memorable end. That is what they will get.’

‘Do not linger in the throes of death,’ said Barnaby Gill, waspishly. ‘You took so long to expire in
Antonio’s Revenge
that we could have played the entire piece through again before you hit the ground.’

Firethorn stood on his dignity. ‘I am famed for my death scenes.’

‘Only because they outlast anyone else’s.’

‘Be silent, Barnaby. Curb your jealousy of a superior actor.’

Gill smirked. ‘I’ve yet to meet one – alive or dead.’

‘I bestride the boards like a giant.’

‘That explains why you lumber so and get in everyone’s way.’

Nicholas clapped his hands to interrupt them before another row was sparked. Barnaby Gill was the established
clown in the company, second only to Firethorn in terms of talent and able to control an audience with equal skill. Though they worked together superbly on stage, the two men were sworn enemies once they stepped off it, forever indulging in verbal duels as each tried to seize the advantage. Edmund Hoode was the usual peacemaker between them but he was not even aware of their heated exchange this time. It was the book holder who turned their minds to the rehearsal.

The scene began with the entry of the conspirators. Brutus and Cassius instructed the others and reminded them of the magnitude of Caesar’s faults. Their manner changed when the remaining members of the Senate came in, and they gave no hint of their murderous intent. Mark Anthony had a brief conversation with Casca, and Nicholas was pleased with the way that Hoode declaimed his lines. He appeared to have shaken off his earlier problems and spoke with confidence. Wearing a toga over his doublet and hose, Julius Caesar then entered like a conquering hero, treating the senators with weary condescension as they tried to press him with individual petitions.

Even in rehearsal, Firethorn was supreme, moving with imperious strides, using peremptory gestures to keep the senators in their place and investing his voice with an authority that reverberated around the inn yard. While the arrogant Caesar praised himself extravagantly for having done so much for Rome, the conspirators moved into position. One moment, Firethorn was the head of a vast empire, the next, he was the victim of a brutal attack as no
less than eight senators produced daggers from their robes in order to stab him. Casca was the first to strike, then, in quick succession, came the flashing blades of Cassius, Trebonius, Decius Brutus, Metellus Cimber, Cinna, Caius Ligarius and, finally – to Caesar’s utter dismay – the trusted Brutus. As the conspirators drew back to allow Firethorn to play his death scene, however, they revealed that one body had already fallen to the floor.

In the hurly-burly of the assassination, Casca had collapsed. Edmund Hoode was no longer playing a part. Sensing that he was seriously ill, most of the actors abandoned their roles to crowd around the prone figure and Julius Caesar became aware that the agonising death he was undergoing with such ear-splitting groans had no audience at all. Instead, everyone was looking at Hoode. Enraged that his thunder had been stolen, Firethorn tore off his toga, flung it to the floor, and turned to confront the other actors.

‘God’s tits!’ he howled. ‘This tragedy is called
Caesar’s Fall
and not
The Death of Casca.
Remember, if you will, that
I
have the title role here and I’ll not be eclipsed by anyone else in the play.’ He glared at the Roman senators. ‘Which one of you blind and brainless idiots stabbed the wrong man?’

But nobody was listening. They were too alarmed by Hoode’s sudden collapse. Nicholas dashed across the stage and knelt beside his friend, easing him gently on to his back and placing a hand on his fevered brow. Hoode was completely unconscious. His breathing was uneven and there was a strange smell on his breath. Michael
Grammaticus clambered on to the stage. His face was a study in apprehension.

‘What happened?’ he asked. ‘Is he unwell?’

‘Yes,’ said Nicholas, solemnly. ‘He needs a doctor.’

‘I’ll fetch one with all haste.’

Grammaticus rushed off at once and left them to make Hoode as comfortable as they could. Fury now spent, Firethorn was as sympathetic as anyone, bending solicitously over his friend and imploring him to say something. Edmund Hoode, however, was beyond the reach of words. Retrieving the discarded toga, Nicholas rolled it up to make a cushion for the patient’s head, then urged everyone to stand back in order to give him plenty of air.

The rehearsal was over.

 

Alexander Marwood was trapped. The landlord of the Queen’s Head had long ago discovered that he was in the wrong occupation and the wrong marriage. Small, skinny, ugly, misshapen and balding dramatically, he had the face of a diseased ferret, but it was his nature that was unsuited to life in a boisterous tavern. He abhorred crowds and despised drunkenness yet he was at the mercy of both on a daily basis. If he had been happy in his private life, he might have borne it with resignation but he was locked in a joyless union with his wife, Sybil, a stone-faced harridan who was skilled in the black arts of marital persecution. Marwood’s soul had shrivelled inside him.

‘I should never have taken this hellish place on,’ he confessed.

‘But it’s a fine inn, Alexander, with a good reputation and regular custom.’

‘I always wanted a quiet life.’

‘Ah, well,’ said Adam Crowmere with a chuckle, ‘you should not have come near London if you sought tranquillity. Here’s life, here’s bustle, here’s the biggest and most exciting city in the whole of Europe. Would you really choose to waste away in some dull country backwater? Come, Alexander, tell the truth. Being here in the capital has many consolations. Think how blessed you have been in your chosen bride, for instance. Sybil must bring great comfort to you.’

Squirming inwardly at the mention of his wife, Marwood did not trust himself to reply but his face was eloquent. Three separate nervous twitches broke out to animate his features, each moving rapidly and indiscriminately from nose to cheek, from chin to ear, from eyebrow to forehead, from lip to lip, until all three coalesced on his pate and made it ripple. Marwood smacked his head with an irritable hand but it only made the waves roll more swiftly across his skull.

‘I’ll wager this,’ said Crowmere, patting him familiarly on the back. ‘You and Sybil will miss the Queen’s Head. No sooner will you reach Dunstable than you’ll wish that you were back here again.’

‘I doubt that,’ replied Marwood, testily. ‘I’ll be too busy breathing fresh air again and enjoying a life where I am not at the beck and call of every fool, knave and drunkard who walks through my door. Be warned, Adam. The Queen’s
Head is no Garden of Eden. The sweepings of London come into this tavern.’

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