In the dressing room after the day’s performance at the Globe Theatre, Suzanne Thornton sat before the paint table, and sagged happily, exhausted but exhilarated. The players around her chattered and laughed, in high spirits after a show that had been well received by their audience. In spite of the January cold, with the promise of snow in the air—or perhaps because of it—the New Globe Players’ presentation of Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night brought much applause and laughter of the kind that made the performers want to join in. Sometimes it was difficult to keep a straight face in the comedies, and that was Suzanne’s great weakness onstage, for she had never had much to smile about and these days was sorely tempted to laugh whenever she could.
Nevertheless, it was a joy to have returned to the stage. After a lifetime of struggling to escape the predatory notice of those more powerful than herself, and at her age when there were few opportunities to attract benevolent attention from anyone, appreciative audiences were a delight. Life was finally looking up.
She picked up the troupe’s newly-purchased mirror from the table and propped it against a ceramic mug filled with paintbrushes standing on end. The mirror was small, but was all she could afford for The New Globe Players just then, and far nicer than the large, ragged shard they’d all been using up to last week. At the moment Matthew had the old mirror, a big piece of broken, silvered glass, with patches of the silvering missing from the back and its sharp edges filed down and covered in melted wax. It sat propped against a small wooden box of lead powder, all of which smelled sharply of sheep fat and oil, with an underlying earthiness of talc. To Suzanne it was a smell uniquely theatrical. It smelled of home.
Matthew sat opposite Suzanne, removing white-lead paint from his face with linseed oil and speaking to Liza, the girl who was their Viola these days, in cheerful, self-congratulatory terms. Besides playing the central character in Twelfth Night, Lisa was the girl at the center of Matthew’s affections and just then he sounded a bit condescending in his assessment of her performance that afternoon. He seemed disparaging of women acting on the stage, telling her she had done well that day, for a woman.
“Nonsense,” Suzanne said in a light, Don’t be silly tone as she wiped oil over the blacking around her eyes until she looked much as she often had in her youth after having been beaten by her father. “She was absolutely perfect. No man could have played that role better than our woman.”
From across the room, Louis chimed in. “Kynaston could have. He’s far prettier than Liza, and his voice carries into the rafters. The man’s a genius.”
“He’s a sodomite, and should have been born a woman.”
“He’s not prettier,” said Liza in a defensive, slightly horrified voice. “He’s a skinny, soft boy whose balls never dropped, and the only reason anybody thinks he can play women is that they’ve never seen a real one on stage before.”
“He’s an artist,” Louis continued. “I saw him once. In The Maid’s Tragedy, last year.” His voice took on a note of admiration Suzanne thought a little strange. She’d often heard people talk of Ned Kynaston that way. She’d also seen him on the stage, and knew he possessed a beauty so androgynous that it seemed the whole of London wanted to bed him, men and women. She herself confessed to a slight attraction, though her preference was very much for hard-edged, mature masculinity and not so very much for Kynaston’s beestung lips and doe eyes. He really did seem an innocent, pre-pubescent boy, though he was in his early twenties and by all accounts was not so very particular where he slept.
She said, “The fellow is exceedingly fair, and decidedly undecided in his sex. But that doesn’t make him a woman, or even a facsimile to portray us on the stage. At best he paints a picture of us in broad strokes so that the male audience can comprehend in unsubtle ways. In short, young fellows, he simplifies so those such as you might comprehend womanhood on an elementary level, which is, after all, your capacity.”
Louis and Matthew fell silent and gazed at her for a moment, Louis with a puzzled crease between his eyes and Matthew’s eyes narrowed in search of a suitably witty retort. He didn’t find one. Liza snickered to herself with a breathy, heehee sound.
Matthew opened his mouth to respond, but was interrupted when one of their young boy actors, who went by Christian, blew into the room at top speed, skidded to a stop just inside the door, and said in a near-shout, “Mistress Thornton!” He swayed where he stood at the end of his slide. “You’ve a visitor!”
There were always visitors after a show. Everyone in the audience who thought they might have a chance at going backstage to socialize with the actors came after the show or before it. Horatio, who directed the plays and often acted in them, was ever struggling to keep the green room and dressing room from filling wall-to-wall with those who wished to be actors but hadn’t the talent or discipline for it. Some sought sexual liaison with the performers, and others simply wished to bask in reflected glory and tell of it later to their friends. Since The Globe Theatre was not the most fashionable playhouse in London, the quality of their visitors was never high, and Horatio’s effort was mostly aimed at keeping out those who would steal costumes and properties. She asked, “Who is it?”
He shook his head. “Dunno, Mistress. She’s a queer old woman, I vow. Dressed a bit strange, like she was fresh from the countryside but…I dunno. Strange.”
Suzanne was tired. It was time for supper, and she could smell it being prepared by her maid downstairs. Having spent the entire afternoon entertaining people, she was ready to have the evening to herself. “Tell her I’ve gone home. Since I live on the premises, that won’t be a lie.”
“Very well, Mistress.” With that, Christian bolted from the room as speedily as he’d arrived, leaving Louis to close the door behind him. The boy returned in but a few moments, before Suzanne could wipe the remaining paint from her face.
“Mistress Thornton, begging your pardon and sorry to disturb you again, but the woman outside is insisting she be permitted to see you.”
Suzanne turned from her mirror, resigned to deal with this. “What, exactly, does this woman want?”
“She says she would warn you.”
Warn? As much as Suzanne knew this must be a ploy of some sort, her curiosity was now piqued. Ignoring a warning was one thing, but to never even hear it was tempting fate a bit too much. She said, “Very well. Show her in.”
Christian ran out again at full speed, dodging others standing in the room awaiting a turn at the table.
Suzanne hurried to get as much paint from her face as she could, and had begun wiping the oil with a dry cloth when Christian returned with an old woman in tow.
The crone was old indeed, and dressed very strangely. She wore no bodice, but only a skirt and a long maroon scarf tied at her midriff that restrained her blouse. Another scarf, an orange one which bore a ragged fringe, lay draped about her hips. From its knot at her side hung a purse of bright, shiny red silk. The skirt was a lively orange-and-red print, faded now but plainly it had once been bright and eye-catching. Her blouse was relatively new and of a deep turquoise color that argued bitterly with the rest of the costume. Beneath the baggy and loosely-woven cotton her large breasts swayed and sloshed without restraint. Its sleeves gathered at the wrist then splayed in copious blue lace to beyond her fingertips. Her hands were quite lost in it until she flipped it back to reveal them and the enormous jeweled rings she wore on gnarled fingers. Her hands were great clusters of knobby knuckles and semiprecious stones, connected by fingers little more substantial than her bones. Yet another scarf, this one of kelly green, adorned her head, secured at the nape of her neck with a simple brooch of plain copper. Long, wavy gray hair spilled from under the scarf, nearly to her waist. Amid the festive explosion of color she wore a wide smile and revealed a surprising number of teeth for one so obviously aged.
“Hello,” she said, her words oddly clipped and her smile a bit stiff. “’Tis a good thing to meet you today, mistress. I’ve got an earful for ye.” She nodded as if to affirm her words, then turned her attention on Matthew at the table and gave him a hard stare.
Matthew seemed unsure what she wanted from him, but then realized it was his seat she expected. Without argument, he vacated the chair and took his mirror and rag with him to stand aside, where he resumed wiping oil from his face. The woman sat, and returned her attention to Suzanne.
“My name is Esmeralda La Tournelle. I am the astrologer to King Charles and many of his court.”
Suzanne recognized the name. La Tournelle had a long reputation in London for her odd predictions that often were realized. Many Londoners, especially those of the Puritan and Presbyterian bent, decried her as a devil woman, but Suzanne couldn’t dismiss her or her craft entirely. She knew from experience there was something to observing the movements of planets in God’s orderly creation. She nodded to the old woman. “A pleasure to meet you, Mistress La Tournelle.” It was indeed a pleasure, for the woman’s fame was far greater than her own, and a presence of power followed her like a cloud of energy, a nearly visible thickening of the air around her so that one couldn’t help staring at her. She seemed to fill the room all by herself, leaving little space for anyone else. All eyes were on her, and all conversation in the room ceased.
“Call me Esmeralda. I’m mistress of naught other than my fate. I’ve come to do you a good turn.” Now her graciousness filled the room and everyone in it was put at ease.
Suzanne smiled, but was buying little of it yet. “And what will this good turn cost me?”
The woman’s eyes darkened and she lost her smile. Her back straightened and she raised her chin. “I charge them as come to me, and them who has more money than they truly need. You ain’t among them. Not yet, in any case. I’ve come to warn you of an event that will possibly change your life.”
“I expect there will be a great many events in my future that will change my life. It is the nature of the world, and of life as God has given it to us.”
The woman shook her head. “This is a crossroads that you must avoid, and you will come to it soon.”
“Why must I avoid it?” Suzanne glanced at the others in the room, inviting them in on her jest, “My life isn’t so perfect that I wouldn’t want a change.”
A low chuckle riffled through the room.
“Hear me, Mistress Thornton.” A severity hardened the lines in La Tournelle’s very lined face. Her pale blue eyes appeared icy, and a shiver skittered down Suzanne’s spine.
All of a sudden the woman’s presence made Suzanne uncomfortable, the way bad news made one wish to return to the moment before. She wished she hadn’t allowed Christian to bring this strange, old woman into the room. Suzanne would have liked to have her removed, but her bourgeois upbringing wouldn’t permit her that sort of gracelessness. Her manners may have been ordinary, and over the years many had worn off or had been beaten from her, but there were some things one just did not do. Particularly since life was improving and she hoped it would continue to do so. She smiled at her uninvited guest and said, “I’m listening.”
The old woman leaned close as if imparting a secret, though everyone in the room was listening and most were leaning in, the better to hear every word. She said, loudly enough for all to hear, “Beware the river tonight for it will bring you death.”
“The river?” The wide, filthy Thames was not far from the theatre, and when the wind was from the north one could smell it and the things floating on it. “How will it do that?” Suzanne had no plans for boating or bathing that night, but her favorite public house was in a short alley just off Bank Side. She would more than likely come very near the water sometime that evening. “I should stay away?”
La Tournelle gestured overhead with one gnarled hand and waving fingers, staring upward as if gazing at a night sky. “The stars have revealed to me that your life will be changed soon, by water, and death stalks you.”
“As it does us all.”
“It will figure significantly during the coming weeks. You will be consumed by it, and it may consume you.”
She opened her mouth to point out the oxymoronic nature of her comment, but changed her mind as she saw the different meanings of “consume.” But she still made little sense. “Do you mean I’ll drown?”
The old woman shrugged. “That is one possibility, if the sign is to be taken literally.”
“And if not literally?”
“The water will figure mightily in your life.”
“Any water? Not necessarily the Thames?”
“Do you know any seamen?”
There was the pirate who had attacked her a couple of months ago, but she shook her head. That man was in prison, awaiting hanging or pardon according to the king’s pleasure. She didn’t know any seamen, and had never seen the ocean. Nor even the English Channel, for that. She’d lived in London her entire life and for lack of means had never strayed far.
“Then I suggest it would be the Thames.”
“And I’m to stay away?”
“For how long?”
The old woman looked off to the side for a moment, thinking, calculating, then replied, “I think three weeks. Four at the most.”
To stay away from the Goat and Boar for an entire month would be torture. Impossible for her. “I don’t think I can do that. Are you saying that if I walk down Bank Side, no matter how sure-footed, I’ll fall off the bank and drown?”
“Someone will drown. It may be you, it may not. Or it may not be drowning at all. But you will be affected by it one way or another, and severely.”
Others in the room laughed, a tense, uncomfortable chuckle. Suzanne sat back in her chair and clasped her hands. Her knuckles went white, though she struggled to appear as if she didn’t believe any of this. “How do you know this?”
“The stars never lie. They are as God made them, and they show us the entirety of existence, for all creation is interlinked and purposeful. God knows every sparrow that falls, because He created not only the sparrow, but that which destroys it.”
“You think the stars cause things to happen?”
A slightly amused look crossed the woman’s face. She sat back in her chair and folded her hands in her lap. “Of course not. The positions of the planets relative to each other and the stars in the sky do not influence. Only God can do that. The stars merely speak to us, and tell us of what will be.”
“So you believe in God?”
“I could hardly advise the king, did I not. His majesty could never be known to consult a heretic, could he?”
Suzanne allowed as that was true. She said, “I’ve consulted with astrologers before, but I must tell you I’ve never done well by it. I find that when I follow the recommendations of someone who has read my horoscope, the results are never what I expect.”
“Then it is your expectations that are faulty. Those who aim to make themselves richer or more powerful by reading the heavens are doomed to failure. One can never bend creation to one’s own wishes. One can only take heed of what must be and act accordingly.”
“So I should keep away from the Goat and Boar for a few weeks?”
“You should beware of the water, whatever water there might be, and if water flows near the public house then you would do well to avoid the place.”
“Why me? Of all the people in London who might need this warning, what has brought you to me?”
“Mistress Thornton, God has sent me to you.” She said it with a note of exasperation that she must repeat herself.
“God? You’ve spoken to Him, then?” Suzanne hoped this wasn’t going to disintegrate into the rant of a madwoman. She’d been willing to consider keeping away from the river for a while, but if this woman revealed herself to be insane then Suzanne would have to go to Bank Side only for the sake of demonstrating to the rest of the troupe that she hadn’t been taken in by madness.
“Not to hear His voice, at all, mistress. I mean, I’ve had some dreams. I’ve awakened in the night with a strong, ugly feeling regarding you. I was moved to come speak to you. Warn you.”
“Ugly feelings regarding me are not all that uncommon, I vow. How do you even know who I am?”
“Oh, all of London knows who you are, Mistress Thornton. You’ve quite a name this past year or so.”
Suzanne’s head tilted a bit, and she crossed her arms. “Indeed? And God has been telling tales about me?”
“Aye. He’s sent me a strong message, that you will be influenced by water, and soon.”
“I never said ‘drown.’ I said your life will be changed.”
“So I’ll still be alive?”
“Possibly. Possibly not. And whether you die or not, it may not be the water will be the direct cause.”
“So…let me sort through this. In the next few weeks I may or may not die, and if I do it may or may not be of drowning.”
“The only thing certain is that your life will change, and ‘twill be caused by water.”
“But we don’t know what water it will be. Probably the Thames, but not necessarily.”
The old woman nodded and smiled. “Now you see.”
Suzanne saw nothing, and only her belief in the basic principles of astrology kept her curious about what this all meant. She stood, indicating that her guest should ready herself to leave, and said, “Well, I thank you for your advice, Mistress La Tournelle. I shall take your premonition under advisement.”
The old woman hesitated, and a sour look crossed her face in realization that she was being dismissed without consideration. She stood, gave a quick nod, and said, “Then I hope you’ll beware, for I am a Christian woman and I never like to see anyone suffer.”
“I appreciate that. Our boy will show you out, and I thank you for coming.”
“Oh, I was already in the theatre, mistress. I came to see the play this afternoon. Excellent play, I’ll add. You all should be pleased.” She nodded and waved to the other players in the room, who acknowledged the praise with smiles, nods, and murmurs of thanks. Then the old woman followed Christian from the room and they watched her go.
They waited while she removed from earshot, her footsteps fading down the stage left stairwell and out the rear to the house.
When they were all certain she’d gone, Matthew stared after her and said, “Well, there’s a woman with a belfry chock full of bats.”
A nervous laugh riffled about the room, and Suzanne had to chuckle as well. “Water, she says. And with the Thames only a stone’s throw away from this theatre.”
“Perhaps she means rainfall?”
Louis added, “Maybe you’ll have a rain barrel fall on you?” Everyone laughed at that, and he added, “Don’t you be climbing atop any cisterns, then, eh?” That brought more laughter, and Suzanne joined in. She resumed the removal of her makeup, and stared into her mirror, thinking hard.
Coming soon on Bookview Café