It was one of those glorious warm fall days, when the weather was fine and clear, with just a hint of the coming winter. The stench of London summer had passed. Thick with rotting rubbish drifted into piles at the ends of alleyways and caught in the odd corners of ancient architecture, and things floating in the eddies of the Thames just a few streets over, the season had faded well enough to make breathing a pleasure again. Suzanne Thornton took advantage, drawing deep breath after breath, filling her lungs with air so fresh it went to her head, and for the first time in what seemed a very long while she was happy to be alive and happy to be a Londoner. She rather liked winter’s cold, and the crisp fall air pleased her to her toes.
Today she sat in the third-floor gallery of her theatre in Southwark and enjoyed the slight breeze at this height. She’d brought a folding chair so she could sit back and relax, wearing breeches, leggings, a linen shirt and quilted doublet, her legs comfortably crossed like a man. This was her casual attire, chosen for comfort and the fact that it allowed her to move unnoticed among the predominantly male theatre troupers. These days invisibility was a blessing. For her the summer of 1661 had been far too eventful for her taste, and it was a keen pleasure to have only the theatre business to concern her these days. The venture she’d begun just a few months before was flourishing, and her future appeared as bright as the shining yellow sun.
Below on the stage, a cluster of actors was rehearsing a scene from the most recent addition to the troupe’s repertoire. The New Globe Players, so named for the Elizabethan building they occupied in Southwark, were the only commons theatre with royal permission to perform Shakespeare’s plays, so long as they never deviated from the original texts. Simple enough, and far better than being limited to mummeries, tumbling, and commedia dell’arte, as was everyone else who was not one of the two troupes sponsored by the king and his brother.
Despite this fine weather, rehearsal was not going well at all; some of the actors seemed distracted, and Louis was having trouble with his lines. The role was Romeo for him this time, and he’d never played Romeo before. It didn’t seem to suit him, nor he it. Suzanne wasn’t certain she agreed with Horatio’s decision to let Louis play such a prominent character, but there seemed little alternative. Of the truly talented New Globe actors within arms reach of Romeo’s age, Matthew was just a little too long in the tooth and far too large and gruff, and Christian at barely ten not nearly old enough yet. So Suzanne had said nothing, and let the casting stand. Horatio, as he’d often said, was a friend of Hamlet and knew his Shakespeare. Surely he would know how to draw a suitable Romeo out of Louis.
But at that moment Horatio appeared ready to tear his wig from his bald head in frustration at his immature and inexperienced leading man. Everyone could sense it, and the tension added to Louis’s distraction. At some point earlier in the rehearsal Louis had begun stammering his lines and didn’t know how to stop. It was as if he’d forgotten what to say, and he was the only one who couldn’t hear his hesitation. Each time Horatio stopped him to tell him to smooth his delivery, Louis only gave him a puzzled look and returned to his stammer. Horatio stopped him again, and frustration grew. One of them was sure to go off like Scottish artillery very soon if this continued. Suzanne sat up in her chair and leaned over the rail to shout down to the stage.
The large man turned to peer up at her, his wig slightly askew. He had no hair at all beneath it for traction to keep it secured to his head, and it was ever crooked, dislodged by the motion of his wildly gesticulating arms as he advised his actors. Even when conversing normally, he couldn’t keep his arms still.
She told him, “Perhaps the group rehearsing in the green room could do with a bit of supervision. Why don’t you go see how they’re coming along?”
Horatio opened his mouth to reply, with a look that told her he wished she would tend to her own affairs, but thought better of saying so and clapped it shut. Then he opened it again and said mildly with a slight nod of a bow, “Your wish is my command, my niece.” He turned to the cluster on the stage, said something to Louis and moved off at a lumber, upstage and toward the ‘tiring house.
Suzanne was about to tell Louis to proceed with the rehearsal, when there came a rapping on the large entrance doors at the front of the theatre. The actors turned toward them, unsure what to do, for visitors at this time of day usually meant something was wrong, and several of them would head for the bolt hole at the rear of the ‘tiring house if they thought the knock were meant for them. Having but two entrances was good for keeping out nonpaying audience, but it made the theatre a trap for anyone inside pursued by the authorities or creditors.
In Suzanne’s experience, any visitor at any time who was not there to see a play invariably brought bad news. The time was not yet noon, and the audience wouldn’t be let in for that afternoon’s performance until half past two. Everyone in the city knew that all theatre performances began at three or thereabouts, and for anyone who didn’t know, there was an enormous bill posted on the wall outside saying so. Suzanne leaned over the rail, trying to see the doors below her though she knew they were too far back under the gallery to be visible. The rapping came again, and so she withdrew into the gallery again and hurried down the spiral stairs to the ground floor.
By the time she got there Louis and Matthew, who had the role of Mercutio, were already lifting the bolt to open the doors. Liza, this year’s Juliet, remained where she was, high in the stage right gallery which stood for the balcony in the play. To come down and see what was going on she would have had to go down the winding back stairs to the ‘tiring room and out to the stage, and might have missed something during that long trek. She chose to watch from the gallery railing as Louis hauled open the large, heavy door a crack and peeked out.
“What’s your business?” said Louis.
The voice from outside was unintelligible to Suzanne. She said, “Louis, let him in.”
He said to the voice, “Tell your business.”
“Louis, let him in. I can’t hear him out there.”
With a show of reluctance, Louis hauled the door wide enough to allow the visitor to enter. In stepped a man in a skirt. Not just a skirt, but a checkered one that barely covered his knees. The woolen fabric of it overflowed his belt so lavishly that he threw the excess over his shoulder like a cape or shawl. Suzanne had seen a kilt once before, but that had been a dull brown with black threads running through it. This luxurious garment was a stunning red with green, black and yellow criss-crossing in large squares. The fabric was clean and appeared new, a rare thing in this neighborhood, and in her experience almost an oddity in a Scot. Beneath the kilt the visitor wore a clean white shirt that was equally stiff and fresh. His belt was dyed shiny black and bore a large, silver buckle wrought so finely as to bespeak a great deal of wealth. As did the sword that hung at his side from a black leather baldric. A utility dagger with a plain wooden handle was thrust into his belt without scabbard. For shoes he wore only soft leather without ornament or heel, and no leggings at all. It begged the question of what linens he might be wearing beneath the kilted wool, and though there had once been a time when Suzanne might have simply lifted the hem to find out, today she refrained for the sake of proving herself no longer a tart. At her age, that sort of behavior was less than amusing to most men and should be left to women far younger and comely than herself.
And besides, this man’s face caught her attention and held it. He had the black Irish coloring she’d always found appealing, with jet black hair, pale skin, and warm, ruddy cheeks. His mouth was red, and appeared to have the sort of habitual smile that made some people seem happy all the time. In addition, this man was actually smiling. His charm was palpable, and Suzanne felt if she stood in his presence long enough she would soon be covered in it, like spring pollen.
He looked straight into her eyes and said, “I’ve come for an audition.”
Suzanne blinked, surprised. This man appeared far too wealthy to need employment as an actor. Theatre was something one did when desperate and only when without skills other than lying. Certainly that was how she herself had ended up here. In the general scheme of things, acting was thought by most people as one step down from military service, one step up from thievery, and just around the corner from murder for hire. The wealth and beauty she saw standing before her was almost never found onstage.
Their visitor continued, in a rich, rolling brogue, “My name is Diarmid Ramsay, and I’ve been told you’ve a need for someone to play the title role in Macbeth.”
This was news to Suzanne. That play was one the troupe had not yet addressed, and she’d not heard mention of it from Horatio. She turned to call him from the ‘tiring house, and found he’d not left the stage. He was still there, staring at the brightly dressed Scot as if fascinated by the busy tartan wool. “Horatio!” she called. “Have you put out an audition notice regarding Macbeth?”
“I expect you mean the Scottish play.” An odd stress in his voice puzzled her, and he crossed himself as if she’d uttered a curse. When he kissed the wooden crucifix he wore around his neck, she knew she’d truly frightened him.
Oh, right. Nobody ever called that play by its proper name. Bad luck, or something. Horatio was a stickler for taking no chances with theatre superstition, going so far as to ban whistling in the ‘tiring house though he’d only just that year heard it was bad luck. “Very well, then, if you like. The Scottish play. Are we casting for it?”
“No, and we will not ever. ‘Tis terrible luck and I won’t have it.”
Suzanne turned to Ramsay. “I’m sorry, kind sir, you seem to have been ill informed. We’re not casting Mac…that play.” She took a glance back at Horatio.
“Are you certain?” asked the would-be Macbeth.
Horatio called out from where he stood, “We are most certain. No Scottish play for us. Every troupe that has performed that play has failed and dispersed soon after. ‘Tis bad luck.”
Suzanne frowned, thinking, and turned back toward Horatio. “Well, it seems to me the luck is not so much luck as simply timing. Everyone knows that a failing company performs popular plays to increase attendance. And you can’t deny it’s a popular play.”
“You’ll recall in the old days, the time Cromwell’s soldiers attacked us we’d just performed that play.”
“We were performing The Twelfth Night when they came.”
“But the day before it had been the Scottish play.”
“And you think we were cursed by Shakespeare?”
“’Twas the witches. The witches cursed us.”
“You mean the Double, double…”
“Stop!” Horatio pressed his palms to his ears and shut his eyes tightly. “Do not say it!” He crossed himself again, then quickly returned his right palm to his ear. He crouched, as if awaiting a blow.
Louis said mildly, “I’d like us to do Macbeth.” Horatio flinched, but Louis ignored him. “I’ve always enjoyed that play, all dark and mysterious like. I prefer the spooky ones. Witches and ghosts and all that there suchlike.”
“A young man such as yourself would know no better than to flirt with the powers of darkness. So exciting for yourself, but not so merry for those of us who know the ways of the world and how badly they can go awry. ‘Tis bad luck, I say. You can have your mystery, Louis, and keep it.”
Matthew said, “Not so mysterious, I think. Ambitious woman eggs on her husband to do murder, they both go mad with guilt, and everyone ends up dead.”
“Everyone who deserves it, and then some. A crowd pleaser, that one.”
Suzanne allowed as she did rather like Macbeth, and thought it would be a good addition to the repertoire. Indeed, one might think it a necessary addition, being a crowd pleaser. “I think we should do it.”
Horatio shook his head, wide-eyed and speechless with terror, his palms still pressed to his ears.
“Seriously, Horatio. How can we not do such a popular play?”
“Easily enough. We simply don’t cast it, then carry on with our day. We’ve Romeo and Juliet to keep us occupied.”
“But we must. What would I tell Daniel, should he ask when we’ll perform it?” Daniel Stockton, Earl of Throckmorton, was the father of her grown son, and the theatre’s patron.
“I daresay I care not a fig what thou sayst to his grace, for I care not to bring that play into my theatre.”
Plainly Horatio was upset, for now he was talking in quasi-Puritan thee-thou, an affectation that had begun as amusement and eventually became unconscious habit. A devout Catholic, he was no more Puritan than the pope, and therefore did it poorly so that he seemed to speak in a messy mish-mosh of Elizabethan and present-day English. But the more he protested and the more archaic his language doing so, the more Suzanne wanted the New Globe Players to put on a production of that play. She replied, “Whose theatre?”
Horatio sighed, and his face clouded over in a frown. “In truth, ‘tis Shakespeare’s theatre. In technicality, ‘tis owned by his grace the earl.”
“But whose theatre is it for all intents and purposes?”
He sighed, and let a long pause wind out. Then he allowed, “’Tis thine.”
“Indeed, ‘tis. So shall we have a production of the Scottish play, then?”
Horatio glowered for another very long moment, and Suzanne waited. He would acquiesce, but would first make it clear he did it under protest. Finally he said, “Very well.”
Diarmid Ramsay, who had been nearly forgotten in the clash of wills, said in a strong, booming voice that nearly rivaled Horatio’s, “Excellent! Where shall I stand for my recital?”
“You’ve a speech prepared, I expect.” Horatio crossed his arms over his chest, dragging his heels every inch in protest.
“I’m a Scot, my friend, and know the play well. Were I a mind to, I could recite the entire role in Gaelic, and much of it in French as well.”
Horatio blanched, as if he were afraid Ramsay might attempt it right there. “The king’s English, if you please. I hear the play at all under duress; I’ll not listen to it in jibber-jabber, thank you.”
Ramsay’s smile never faltered. “As you wish. And so, where shall I stand?”
Horatio waved to the stage boards as he stepped down the side steps. “Up here, if you please. Let us see how well you rattle the rafters with your voice.”
The Scot nodded as he made his way across the pit and up the side steps past Horatio. It was nearly a march he made, large and broad, each foot planted well, chin up, chest out, and the end of his tartan plaid drifting behind him, as if he were accompanied by the skirl of a bagpipe and the beat of a tabor. Suzanne found herself staring at his bare legs, lightly dusted with the sort of black hairs she had not seen since her days in a brothel in Bankside. His calves were well-muscled, in a way that also steered her thoughts toward that brothel, and the urge to test their hardness made her fingers twitch. She shook her head to clear it, and drew a deep breath. Those days were gone, and she didn’t miss them. It was silly to think otherwise.
As Ramsay took center stage the light changed, as if the afternoon suddenly plunged into dusk. A glance at the sky made her wonder where those clouds had come from. It seemed only a moment ago the heavens had been a flawless, pale blue. And now the clouds covered the sun so Suzanne could hardly tell where it was.
Ramsay planted his feet and adjusted his plaid. For a moment he closed his eyes, and his entire attitude shifted somehow. His stance changed, though his feet stayed put. Tension gathered his shoulders together. His head tilted just slightly. He held out his hands, palms up, as if holding something across them. When he opened his eyes, the fellow who had walked through the theatre entrance was no longer there, replaced by a man screwing his courage to the sticking point to murder his king.
His lungs filled, and his voice rolled out across the pit. It echoed from the empty galleries, and Suzanne knew it must be heard on the street outside.
“Is this a dagger which I see before me, the handle toward my hand? Come, let me clutch thee. I have thee not, and yet I see thee still. Art thou not, fatal vision, sensible to feeling as to sight? Or art thou but a dagger of the mind, a false creation, proceeding from the heat-oppressed brain? I see thee yet, in form as palpable as this which now I draw. Thou marshall’st me the way that I was going; and such an instrument I was to use. Mine eyes are made the fools o’ the other senses, or else worth all the rest; I see thee still, and on thy blade and dudgeon gouts of blood, which was not so before. There’s no such thing: it is the bloody business which informs thus to mine eyes. Now o’er the one halfworld nature seems dead, and wicked dreams abuse the curtain’d sleep; witchcraft celebrates pale Hecate’s offerings, and wither’d murder, alarum’d by his sentinel, the wolf, whose howl’s his watch, thus with his stealthy pace. With Tarquin’s ravishing strides, towards his design moves like a ghost. Thou sure and firm-set earth, hear not my steps, which way they walk, for fear thy very stones prate of my whereabout, and take the present horror from the time, which now suits with it. Whiles I threat, he lives: words to the heat of deeds too cold breath gives. ” Ramsay then started to the tolling of an imaginary bell. “I go, and it is done: the bell invites me. Hear it not, Duncan; for it is a knell that summons thee to heaven or to hell.”
There was a dark silence. Ramsay remained in character during it, gazing upstage with a mimed dagger in one hand, ready to exit and murder Duncan.
Horatio uttered a tiny whimper, his face pale as if Ramsay had actually stabbed someone to death. He said, “The role is yours. We’ll begin rehearsal on it in three days. Come and be ready at ten of the clock in the morning.”
Louis said, alarmed, “He’s got the role? You won’t hear anyone else?”
Horatio appeared defeated. “No. He will do it.”
“I would have liked to play it.”
“You’re too young.”
“What about Matthew, then?”
Horatio looked over at Matthew, for that actor might have done well with it. But he said, “Macduff. Matthew will play Macduff. The victor.”
Louis muttered an Anglo-Saxon vulgarism that was not quite like him.
Horatio seemed to shake off his funk and his booming voice of authority returned. “I’d not take such an attitude young man, until I’d mastered the role at hand. You’ll have a better grip on Romeo or you’ll not set foot on my stage again for the Scottish play nor any other!”
Louis’s lips pressed together, and he stared at the stage boards at his feet.
Meanwhile, Ramsay adjusted the plaid slung over his shoulder, once more the cheerful and hale Scot who had knocked on the theatre entrance. “Well, then, I’ll be on my way, to return in three days.” He gestured to everyone present, and even to the empty galleries. “God bless you all, and keep you safe until then.” With that, he marched from the theatre, leaving the New Globe players to stare after him.
Suzanne wondered what had just happened, and realized that half an hour ago there had been no thought of performing Macbeth, and now they had committed to a production and two major roles were filled. Who was that man?