By midday the inn-yard and its galleries were packed to bursting point. It seemed that every adult inhabitant of the market town of Leeds, or at least everyone who could spare a penny and an afternoon’s idleness, had gathered for this rare treat. Not only had a professional company of actors come all the way from London, but they were performing a play by England’s most famous writer, Christopher Marlowe. The fact that, barely a month ago, Marlowe had been implicated in a seditious plot and subsequently murdered no doubt fuelled their curiosity far more than the play itself.
In the makeshift tiring-room — a storeroom full of old barrels and smelling of stale beer — Coby was kept busy all afternoon, helping the actors get in and out of their costumes. Sometimes, as now, that meant emergency repairs between scenes.
“There.” She bit off the thread, pinned her needle into her doublet breast and handed the sleeve back to the pale-faced boy who was playing Abigail. “Quick now, you are back on stage in a moment.”
A rumble of applause signalled the end of the second scene of Act Three. The boy yelped in panic. Coby calmly finished tying the last point, though he shifted from foot to foot in an agony of impatience. A few moments later the door opened and several more actors crowded into the small room. The boy pulled away from Coby and slipped past them, followed by a blacked-up man in a turban and curly-toed Turkish slippers.
Two of the returning actors strode into the centre of the room. Master Naismith, who was playing the part of the Governor of Malta, wore a velvet-trimmed robe and carried a dagger in his hand, whilst Master Parrish was dressed as Lady Katherine, a wealthy widow of that island.
“What do you think you were doing with this?” Naismith demanded, waving the dagger at Parrish.
The other actors crowding the tiring-room fell silent. The play out on the stage was dull stuff compared to a squabble between the actor-manager and one of his principals.
“I thought the scene needed to end on a lighter note.” Parrish shrugged and pulled off his wig. “Help me into the friar’s habit, there’s a love,” he called out to Coby. “I shall be late for my next cue else.”
Coby obediently went to him and began unlacing the back of his gown.
“A lighter note?” Naismith said. “Their sons have just murdered one another!”
“A touch of comedy makes the tragedy more poignant. Besides, I think ’tis a most tragical jest, the two of them contending over who will take their own life first on the son’s dagger.”
Naismith rolled his eyes.
“If I wanted the scene to be comic, I would have cast Dickon in your place.”
Coby applied herself to the task in hand; if she caught either of the actors’ eyes, they were sure to drag her into the argument.
“Dickon is already the Turkish slave,” Parrish said, “and there’s no time for a costume change between scenes two and three.”
“Exactly,” the actor-manager said. “Scene three with the slave is meant to contrast with scene two. So next time, more solemnity, if you will.”
The last of the lacings came loose and the gown fell to the floor. Parrish stepped out of it with the ease of long practice. His legs were bare under the skirts, ready to play the poor friar, and they looked incongruously hairy above Lady Katherine’s satin slippers. Coby picked up the gown, dusted it off and draped it over the costume rack, ready to pack away.
“It matters little how I play it,” Parrish said, scrubbing the rouge from his cheeks with a damp flannel. “These rustics can’t tell a great actor from a clown with a bladder on a stick. O to be back in London!”
“We’ll be recalled to the city before long,” Naismith reassured him. “The plague was no more than a rumour. If the theatres do not reopen before the season’s end, I’m a Dutchman.” He glanced at Coby and winked.
Parrish wriggled into the friar’s habit then went out into the narrow space behind the stage to wait for his cue. Seeing that the storm was over for now, the other actors went back to their own preparations.
Naismith sank onto a bench and leant back against the damp plaster wall.
“God’s teeth, I’m parched,” he sighed. “Coby, pour us a beer, there’s a good lad. And come sit by me.”
A small barrel had been set up on a trestle in the corner. Coby found a leather jack and filled it, then carried it carefully over to the bench, weaving amongst the actors who were waiting for their next scene. Naismith patted the bench at his side and she sat down obediently. Though she was no more than a servant in name, she had been with the company longer than many of the actors, and Master Naismith often confided in her when he quarrelled with the adults. She sometimes wondered if he saw her as the son he never had.
“Do you think the new theatre will be ready when we get back, sir?” Coby asked.
“I certainly hope so,” Naismith said softly, wiping the foam from his moustache. “When Lord Suffolk was generous enough to become our patron, I thought our fortunes were made. I suppose it’s only wise to close the theatres when plague’s about, but it was no more than a rumour…” He looked thoughtful for a moment.
“You think someone spread the story on purpose?”
He shrugged. “It wouldn’t be the first time. There are plenty of killjoys in the city — and at Court.”
“His Lordship has enemies.”
“What powerful man doesn’t? But this may not be aimed at him. We are but one company, and when the decree goes out that the theatres must close, what affects one, affects all.” He sipped his ale and sighed. “I’m too old to be tramping the highways and sleeping in flea-ridden inns, my boy, too old.”
“Surely you are not so ancient, sir.” She looked at him and added, not entirely truthfully, ”Scarcely a grey hair to be seen.”
“You flatter me, lad. I am thrice your age at least.” He got stiffly to his feet and handed her the tankard. “Finish it if you please. I am back onstage in a few minutes.”
Coby nodded. Like Master Naismith, she disliked being on the road. Not, however, because of the discomforts; she was used to a hard life. No, it was the near impossibility of keeping to herself, and the consequent risk of her sex being found out, that left her constantly on edge. If discovered, she could be sent to Bridewell and put to hard labour. Perhaps the actors would not betray her—she was too useful to them, she hoped, to be cast aside so easily—but if the story ever got out, they would not be able to protect her.
She stared into the half-empty tankard. If she had known that the English authorities had such a harsh attitude to women dressing as men, she might never have attempted it in the first place. But back home in the Netherlands it was an accepted, if not entirely approved, practice for women who needed to protect their virtue. Her own mother did the same, when the family fled the Catholic soldiers who were sacking their home town. Where was she now, Coby wondered. And where was her father, and her brother Kees? Surely she would have received news of them by now, if they had reached England safely. She had to accept that she was alone in the world, with no-one and nothing to rely on but her own wits. And Providence, of course.
* * *
After the performance the actors took a late dinner in the parlour that the landlord had, somewhat reluctantly, reserved for their use, then they went down to the taproom for the evening. Though it was cooler downstairs after the heat of the day, Coby would have liked to stay in the peace and quiet of the parlour, but she was afraid that Master Parrish might try and catch her alone again. She wondered if it might not be better to come straight out and tell him she was a girl; that would kill his interest in her, professional and personal, stone dead. She smiled to herself at the thought of his likely reaction. It would almost be worth it, just to see the look of utter horror on his face. She was not at all sure she could trust him with her secret, though; Parrish was a worse gossip than any woman.
Down in the taproom Rafe Eaton, the company’s lead actor, was giving an impromptu reprise of his best speeches for those who had not been able to attend the performance. He was no longer wearing the Jew’s cap and robe, nor the long false beard, but somehow he managed to convey the character with little more than a hunch of the shoulders and a well-practised accent.
Someone had rolled an empty barrel into the middle of the room, to represent the cauldron into which Barabas falls at the end of the play and Eaton now stood in it, declaiming in a loud voice:
“Know, Governor, ’twas I that slew thy son.
I framed the challenge that did make them meet.
Know, Calymath, I aimed thy overthrow,
And had I but escaped this stratagem,
I would have brought confusion on you all,
Damned Christian dogs, and Turkish infidels!
But now begins the extremity of heat
To pinch me with intolerable pangs.
Die, life! Fly, soul! Tongue, curse thy fill, and die!”
The actor clutched his head and sank down into the barrel, moaning in feigned agony. The crowd clapped and whistled, and several of them ordered beer for the actors.
Coby slid onto the bench next to Philip, the boy who played Abigail. Master Parrish’s other apprentices looked down on her for not being an actor, but Philip always treated her like an equal. He was not overly friendly either, to tell the truth, but that suited Coby fine; she had no wish to get too close to the other boys.
The rest of the company were discussing their next stop on the tour.
“The aldermen of York have prohibited Londoners from entering their city, owing to the rumours of plague in the south,” Naismith was saying. “They suggest going east, to St John’s Fair at Beverley.”
“A fairground?” Parrish said, wrinkling his nose.
“We cannot afford to turn down any engagement,” the actor-manager pointed out. “Suffolk’s patronage may give us permission to tour the country, but he does not pay us to perform.”
“How much did we make today?” Dickon Rudd, the company’s clown, asked.
Naismith glanced around, and whispered something to his ear. Rudd nodded appreciatively. Coby didn’t need to ask; she had helped Master Naismith load the bags of pennies into the strongbox. At least thirty shillings was her guess, perhaps a bit more.
“The landlord wanted a share of the gate,” Naismith added, more loudly, “until I pointed out he would make twice that on food and ale.”
The company laughed, and Eaton got up to order more ale. He came back a few minutes later with a girl on each arm and a pot-boy trailing in his wake. The boy went round the table with a jug, filling as many tankards as he could, then hurried back to the bar for more. Rudd shuffled down the bench, grumbling, and Eaton and his companions sat down. One of the girls giggled and kissed the actor’s neck and ear, whilst the other glanced coyly around the table. Coby sipped her ale, thanking the Lord that she had an honest job. How could her disguising be sinful, compared to those girls’ behaviour?
“Sure you lads don’t want a go?” Eaton said to the apprentices with a wink, as he hoisted one of the wenches onto his lap.
Parrish glared at him, but before he could frame a suitable retort, the taproom door opened and a man in travelling cloak and boots came in, shaking the rain from his velvet cap. He glanced around the room briefly, then made straight for the actors’ table. As he threw back his cloak, Coby saw he was wearing a white doublet over blue livery, with a red unicorn on the breast. The badge of Sir Anthony Grey, Duke of Suffolk.
“You are Henry Naismith, of Suffolk’s Men?” he asked the actor-manager.
The courier took a letter from his satchel and handed it to Naismith, then withdrew to the bar. Coby wondered if he was waiting for a reply, or merely hoping to get a room at the inn tonight after his long ride.
Naismith unfolded the letter and read it carefully. Since he was sitting at the head of the table, it was impossible for anyone to read it over his shoulder without getting up from their seat. The actors shuffled on their benches impatiently.
“Is it a summons from our patron?” Parrish asked, leaning sideways and trying to peer around the edge of the sheet of paper. “Shall we play at Whaddon Hall?”
“It is from Lord Suffolk,” Naismith conceded, folding the letter. “But it is not a summons to Whaddon.” He paused for effect. “It is something much better than that.”
“London,” Eaton said smugly. “I knew it.”
The girl on his lap shrieked and kissed him on the mouth. Coby felt a bare foot slide up her stockinged calf, and saw the other girl winking at her. She pulled her leg back hurriedly.
“London?” Philip cried. “The new theatre is finished?”
“I cannot say for certain,” said Master Naismith, smiling. “But yes, we are recalled to London.”
The apprentices whooped with joy, and Coby permitted herself a smile of relief. A few short days and they would be back in the city, where everyone was too busy with their own lives to notice a skinny lad who really ought to be showing signs of approaching manhood. Her secret was safe for a while longer.