Authors: Philip Gooden
Other titles by the same author
Sleep of Death
Death of Kings
The Pale Companion
Alms for Oblivion
Constable & Robinson Ltd
55–56 Russell Square
London WC1B 4HP
First published in the UK by Constable,
an imprint of Constable & Robinson Ltd 2004
Copyright © Philip Gooden 2004
The right of Philip Gooden to be identified as the author of this work has been asserted by him in accordance with the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act, 1988
All rights reserved. This book is sold subject to the condition that it shall not, by way of trade or otherwise, be lent, re-sold, hired out or otherwise circulated in any form of binding or cover other than that in which it is published and without a similar condition including this condition being imposed on the subsequent purchaser.
A copy of the British Library Cataloguing in
Publication Data is available from the British Library
Printed and bound in the EU
Thou know’st the mask of night is on my face
Romeo and Juliet
, 2, ii
To begin with, you put on the costume.
You put it on for practice, to see how it fits.
No, you put it on to see how
fit – how you fit the part which you have chosen for yourself.
But first you listen at the door. There is no sound from the passageway outside, no scurrying feet, no talk, no subdued laughter. It is that dead point in the middle of the afternoon when the morning’s business is all done and the preparations for evening not yet started. Even so you take the precaution of sliding the bolt home. Then you walk towards the cedar chest in the corner. The lid creaks as you open it. The chest is full. You remove the sheets that are neatly piled on the top and reach for the garment that lies half-way down, in the place where you stowed it last night. You reach under the garment and raise it up like a body. With a touch of ceremony you carry it, cradled in your arms, towards the gate-leg table and deposit it there. Then you return to the chest and retrieve the other items and place those too on the table.
You listen at the door once more. Nothing, apart from the thudding of your own heart.
Quickly, before you can think better of it, you strip yourself of your outer clothes and throw them carelessly towards the open chest in the corner. Your senses must be heightened because, despite the sound of your heart, you hear the soft sigh your clothes give as they land on the rim of the chest. You also hear someone laugh, a little low laugh, and for an instant you think that a person has been in the room with you all this time, watching you, spying on you. Your head spins with explanations and excuses before you understand that the laughter came out of your own mouth. Then you are standing in front of the table, looking down at the black coat.
The black coat goes straight over the undergarments. It’s too thick to wear anything else. Even so, the coat feels heavier than you expected, heavier than when you were carrying it in your arms. The canvas material is waxed so as to repel water – and other liquid matter – and has a stiffness which makes you conscious of your limbs and produces a certain awkwardness in your movements at first. It is already warm inside here. In a few moments you will be hot. Hot but sheltered. As if you were wearing armour. Well, that’s appropriate. After all, this black coat is intended to protect its possessor against a sudden attack, against the fatal stab or blow – although not from any human agency.
Then you proceed to don the headpiece. A mask, but rather more than a mask. A black hood made of coarse cotton, which encloses the head completely and which is secured with points and buttons at the back. The headpiece has a long bill-like protrusion, similar to a bird’s beak. There are two eye-holes made of thick glass, but no aperture for the nostrils or the mouth. This does not matter since you will not be feeding. You will take shallow breaths. Because of the position of the eye-holes there is a black bar in the middle of your field of vision, but somehow the bar is not part of what you can see, it is closer than that, the bar seems to be inside your head. The glass windows distort the shape of objects out in the world. The legs of the table beside you, for example, seem to curve as they reach the floor. The window light is broken up into shafts and splinters of yellow. The eye-holes give you a sense of detachment from your surroundings.
You feel calmer than you did before. You have been preoccupied with putting on your costume. The sound of breathing is magnified inside the hood and now the blood whispers in your ears. Is it trying to tell you something, your blood? The air within quickly grows thick, but it is easy enough to breathe because the rough weave of the cloth permits new air to penetrate from outside. Of course the wearer would not wish to receive too many vapours from the outside, you tell yourself. There is a hollow pouch at the end of the “beak” which could be filled with herbs – with bay and dried rosemary, perhaps – or with the dried rind of a lemon or a pomecitron. The cloth itself might be soaked in vinegar or fumigated with frankincense. Opinions differ on what is best.
Once you are wearing the coat and hood, you pull on the gloves. These are also black but made of a finer cotton than the hood. They allow the fingers to have free play. The gloves are slightly too large for your hands and you tug them down over the fingers, leaving soft little ridges of material at the base of each where finger joins finger.
There . . . the costuming is almost complete. Only one item remains.
On the table lies a white cane fashioned from willow. You reach towards it. Your black hand, as it comes into view through the eyepieces, doesn’t look like your hand but someone else’s hand. Yet it is your own fingers which curl around the handle of the cane and lift it from the table-top. The willow cane, which you know to be thin, almost elegant, appears thicker through the distorting eye-cases. For a moment you stand with it poised in front of you like a sword or foil. Then you fall to, and poke and prod at the ground, imagining that there is a sick person down there. Or a dying person. Or a dead one. With a flourish of the cane you point out the signs, the infallible marks of his condition, to an imagined audience.
The cane is a badge of authority, it is a wand of office. This is why it is white, so that it stands out against the waxy blackness of your costume. But the cane serves a practical purpose too. It allows you to keep a distance between yourself and the dead.
t wasn’t my idea to visit the old fool. It was Abel Glaze who was eager to meet Will Kemp. The first time the name of Kemp was mentioned in my friend’s hearing his ears pricked up.
Kemp, Nick? The clown? The fool? He of the nine days’ wonder?”
“Yes, that’s him, nine days Kemp.”
“I saw him arrive in Norwich.”
“I saw him depart from Whitechapel.”
“In Norwich he looked as green and fresh as when he’d set off,” said Abel Glaze. “Jigging and bobbing among the crowd he was, like a cork.”
“He’s a bobber all right.”
“You don’t like him?”
“Hardly know the man,” I said.
“That’s odd, because you sound as if you share the opinion of the rest of the Company when it comes to Kemp.”
“Perhaps I do, if you’ll tell me what that opinion is, Abel.”
“Disapproval. A sort of schoolmaster’s disapproval, frowning and pretending he never was a child.”
I might be slightly irritated to be told what I thought but I had to admit that Abel Glaze was right. We players of the Chamberlain’s Company did look down on the clown Will Kemp, even though Kemp had been one of the original shareholders. He’d quit the players, to be replaced by Robert Armin. Armin was a much more subtle fellow, a melancholy fool, a clown with feeling.
By contrast Kemp used to go in for the belly laughs. He swaggered and flailed around. When he jigged he stuck out his arse in the direction of the male groundlings or thrust his codpiece at the female ones. Nothing much wrong with that, but it didn’t always fit the mood of the play he was appearing in. And he added bits of business of his own, usually dirty bits – and usually to the irritation of the writers, who don’t like their words being upstaged by a clown’s antics, to say nothing of the other players, who just don’t like being upstaged. I hadn’t seen any of this myself as it was shortly before I joined the Company but I’d heard all about Kemp’s ribaldry. Finally the Chamberlain’s had enough of him. Or he had enough of them. So Kemp sold his shares and jigged his way from London to Norwich in nine days. He picked up big crowds on his journey as well as forty shillings from the mayor of Norwich for his pains.
After my single glimpse of William Kemp starting off from Whitechapel on his Norwich jig, I’d come across the clown a couple of times in one of our Southwark ale-houses, either the Goat & Monkey or the Knight of the Carpet, I can’t remember which. This was after his return and after the failure of one or two other enterprises. I believe he’d actually set out to jig his way across the Alps. But the inhabitants of those wild regions were not so well disposed towards his antics as the citizens of Ilford or Braintree and he returned a poorer man, as well as a wiser and more bitter one.
In the tavern the jovial, clowning mask slipped and a jeering manner was revealed, together with an unkind word to anyone who treated him to a pint. When Kemp discovered that I was a member of the Chamberlain’s he enquired after the health of Master Shakerag and the Bumbag brothers. I must have looked slightly taken aback at this disrespect – it was during my early days with the Company and before I grew familiar with the robust style of the players’ speech – because I saw a little smile creep across Kemp’s face at my discomfiture. And then, casting his eyes up and down my form, he said something about new players these days not being old enough to wipe themselves.
So I wasn’t altogether keen to renew my acquaintance with the clown. But Abel Glaze was very fresh to the Chamberlain’s and still in awe of the legend of Will Kemp. And I’d heard that Kemp, mellowed now and perhaps lonely, was willing enough to receive members of his old Company. He was living on sufferance in the house of a widow somewhere either in Dow-gate or in Elbow Lane. She charged him no rent, perhaps because she was under some kind of obligation to him. Or perhaps she was simply glad to have the celebrated jig-maker under her roof. Though I think that Kemp was beyond jig-making by now, even if it was only three years since his Norwich excursion. Anyway one morning when Abel badgered me for the fiftieth time about calling on the clown, I agreed to take him to the widow’s house there and then. I paused only to establish from Dick Burbage exactly where the widow lived.