Philip Standage – half-Italian, Catholic, Kit Marlowe’s last lover – is one of the Admiral’s Players, the company that rivals Shakespeare’s. Once Nick Hanham wheedles his way in to the Rose theatre, Philip even has an apprentice to share his secure life. Secure, that is, until he is caught up in Sir Robert Cecil’s plans for the future of England, and more than England.
The last years of Elizabeth’s reign gleam light and dark like a coin spinning beside a flame: wealth and dirt, glory and revolt, high poetry and bloody murder. In this uncertain world nothing is what it seems, least of all men, least of all love. Who can Philip rely on? And if he makes the wrong choice, who can save him?
Excerpt: (found on Manifold Press’ website)
A fair boy with straight hair darted through the open door and ran for the stage.
“Press-gang,” he said, barely able to draw breath.
Oh, I’m sure. But Philip knew that the boy might be telling the truth; Matthew and Elias disappeared at a run for who knew what hiding-place, and the carpenters set off for the heavens above the stage.
“John!” Philip called to the porter, who had his back to him, and did not hear. John, old and deaf and stiff in his joints, was in no danger; Philip might be, unless his disguise was stronger than the press-gang’s wits. As for the boy – “Under my skirts.”
“What?” Hazel eyes, bright with laughter, met his, and Philip knew himself in danger of smiling back. He said, “You heard. You won’t reach another hiding-place in time.” A rustle of silk, a draught of air. “And keep your hands to yourself, or I’ll throw you back,” Philip added.
Henslowe came out to see what was happening; Philip, walking carefully and slowly, reached the trap-door and tapped on it imperiously with one foot before stepping back a little. Whoever was below was awake enough; there was a creak in the stage under him, a scuffle under the shelter of his farthingale, and a brief warm grasp on his ankle – I suppose I can forgive him that much – before the trap closed.
Henslowe was at his shoulder as he turned round. “What is it?”
“Press-gang – or so the boy said.”
“They’re a long time coming,” Henslowe remarked. “I’ll go to the door. You keep moving.”
Philip crossed the stage, maintaining his womanly air, and Stephen Magelt, tire-man to the company, closed the door behind him. Philip stood on the inner trap door; this side, it did not drop, but lifted. “I suppose St Paul’s school ushers are after you, and not the press-gang at all,” he said into thin air, and was answered by a laugh under his feet.
“The ushers are worse, believe me. Can I come out?”
“Not for a moment.” Philip peered through the grating that let players backstage watch for their cue.
Henslowe, returning, strode into the tiring-house. “Not a sign.”
Outside, Sol Jeanes climbed up through the stage trap door.
“Bring the ladder with you, Sol,” Philip said, and smiled at the squawk of indignation from beneath him. He has good ears, I’ll say that much. “Stephen, we’ll have the room to ourselves if you’ll trust me to stow the attire properly.”
“Trust you more than I would that brat,” Stephen said ferociously, the grin on his face belying his words.”
“Let me out!” came from beneath their feet.
“Why?” Philip said. “You wasted our time; surely we’re entitled to a little revenge?” There was too much amusement in his voice for the boy to be seriously worried, of course.
“You mean you believed me?”
“For a moment, perhaps.” Philip raised an eyebrow, and looked at Henslowe. We need another boy, he mouthed.
Pat on the word, the boy said, “I want to be a player.”
Henslowe grunted. “I need a player who can play breathless without having to run across the theatre to do it.”
“I can do that.”
Philip said, “You study at Paul’s. Your friend told me so.”
“What of it?” The voice was wary now, and a thump at the wood beneath him made Philip jump.
“Fees. Who pays them?” he said. “Apprenticeship. Who binds you over to us?”
“I’ll talk to my uncle. He sent me to Paul’s to join Paul’s Boys, but they never staged a play since I arrived.”
Philip turned towards Henslowe and shrugged. “What do we say?”
“Step off the trap, Philip.” Henslowe raised his voice. “Come out and sing, boy. Show us what you’re made of.” He bent to open the trap. “What’s your name, lad, and where from?”
“Nicholas Hanham, master. From Silton in Dorset.” He flattened his hair with both hands, and took a deep breath. “What shall I sing?”
“Whatever you like.”
Nick opened his mouth, closed it again, swallowed, and with a brief look of panic, very much like a player forgetting his words, sang. “Rose, rose, rose, rose, Shall I ever see thee wed? Aye, marry, that thou wilt, If thou but stay.”
It was a round, an easy tune but needing pure notes and good timing. Philip knew it; he relaxed his shoulders, and joined in with the tenor line. Nick, with a sideways glance of thanks or relief, sang on; and presently Henslowe, who had a fine bass voice which he used rarely, joined in.
They made Nick sing and speak and declaim; he played no instrument, but had learned to dance. At last Henslowe turned away. Nick fell silent, and cast a look at Philip, who did not return it.
He’s good. He could be very good.
Henslowe turned back. “As far as I’m concerned, join us and welcome. Your uncle will no doubt pay some heed to a letter from a Gentleman of the Queen’s Bedchamber, and I will write it – if master Standage here is willing.”
“What have I to do with your choice?” Philip asked.
“I already have two prentices. So if we take Nick on, ’tis you must hold his indentures. You are free of one of the guilds, are you not?”
Seven years have I been with the Admiral’s Players and you never troubled to ask me that yet. “The Musicians’ Company, sir.”
“Good. So; if you are willing.” Henslowe walked away.
“Please – ” Nick said.
“Be quiet,” Philip said, turning his back on the beseeching look in those hazel eyes. I suppose I must. After all, I went along with the game in the first place. “All right,” he said, without turning round. “But first you go back to Paul’s. I’ll have no man say we took you unlawfully.”
“They’ll never let me go once I’m between their walls again,” Nick said, lifting his chin and giving Philip a defiant glare. “I’m staying here.”
“No, you are not.” Philip glared back, and then softened the look. “How old are you, lad?”
“Fourteen,” Nick said, then looked at the ground. “Almost.”
“Henslowe does not fail of his word, I promise you. First, we will go to church. Then I will take you back to Paul’s. Next, I will entreat that you aren’t beaten for playing truant, though you deserve it.” He closed his eyes briefly. “And after that – “
“After that?” Nick enquired, looking as much like a cherub as a boy could with the below-stage dust on him.
“After that,” Philip said, “I will find Thomas Dekker, take him to the nearest tavern and drink myself into forgetting what I have just done. But first of all you can help me disrobe, because I can’t wear a farthingale into St Saviour’s.”
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