The fire was started by accident. Will Dunmow was a handsome young man, though nobody would have guessed it when they saw his blackened face and charred body resurrected from the ashes. Having come to the Queen’s Head to watch Westfield’s Men performing their latest play, he had enjoyed it so much that he insisted on adjourning to the taproom of the inn so that he could buy drinks for all members of the company. Wine and ale were consumed in glorious abundance, but the generous spectator made the mistake of trying to hold his own as a tippler against the actors. It was foolhardy. Only a veteran sailor could drink as hard and as relentlessly as a thirsty player, carousing at someone else’s expense. Dunmow was soon so inebriated that he could barely speak a coherent sentence.
Yet he would not stop. As the taproom slowly began to empty, Dunmow remained, slumped at a table, imbibing merrily to the last. Still exhilarated by the play he had seen in the innyard that afternoon, he made a brave, if muddled, attempt at quoting lines from it when he could no longer even remember its title. Taking pity of their amiable benefactor, his last two drinking companions offered to convey him back to his lodging, but Will Dunmow refused to quit an establishment that had given him so much pleasure. Instead, he rented a room for the night and the two actors—Owen Elias and James Ingram—carried him up the rickety stairs. When they laid him on his bed, he fell instantly asleep.
“He’ll not wake until doomsday,” said Elias, looking down at the supine figure with a smile of gratitude. “Would that all our spectators were so free with their purses!”
“Yes,” agreed Ingram, “he was a true philanthropist. And though he drunk himself into a stupor, there was good sport while he did so. He’ll remember this day with fondness, I warrant.”
“So will the rest of us, James.”
“Let’s leave the poor fellow to his well-earned slumber.”
“Good night, good sir,” they said in unison.
Elias snuffed out the candle that stood beside the bed, then he tiptoed out of the room after his friend. Lying in the darkness, Will Dunmow snored gently and dreamed of the performance of The Italian Tragedy that had set his blood racing that afternoon. Instead of being merely a spectator, however, he was now its hero, fighting to save his country from invasion, his own life from court intrigue, and his lover, the beauteous Emilia, from abduction by a foreign prince. Iambic pentameters poured from his lips like a golden waterfall. But his enemies closed furtively in on him. Stabbed by a dozen traitorous daggers, he came awake with a start and sat bolt upright in bed, relieved that he had evaded his assassins and desperate for a pipe of tobacco by way of celebration.
His hands would no longer obey him, flitting ineffectually here and there like giant butterflies with leaden wings. It was pure luck that one of them finally settled on the pocket in which he kept his pipe. It took him an age to find the tobacco and tamp it down in the bowl of the pipe. Inhaling its rich aroma seemed to revive him slightly, and after several attempts, he finally contrived to strike a spark that lit the tobacco. He drew deeply on its essence, letting the smoke curl around his mouth, down his windpipe, and deep into his lungs. The sense of contentment was overwhelming. A rare visitor to the capital, Will Dunmow believed that it had been the happiest day of his life.
Within seconds, he had dozed off again, lapsing into a sleep from which he would never awake. The pipe that had given him such fleeting joy now betrayed him. Falling from his hand, it spilled its glowing tobacco onto the bed. The fire began quietly, burning a hole in the sheet and sending up a column of smoke, imperceptible at first, then thickening and eddying until it filled the whole chamber. Meeting no resistance, the pungent fumes quickly overcame Will Dunmow. Having eaten its way through the bed linen, the fire tasted wood and its appetite proved insatiable. It gobbled everything within reach. By the time that the alarm was raised, the blaze was so loud, fierce, and triumphant that it defied arrest.
Panic seized the occupants of the inn. Guests and servants alike leapt from their beds and fled from their rooms in terror. Clad in his nightshirt, Alexander Marwood, the landlord, ran shrieking up and down passageways and staircases as if he himself had been set alight. The most deafening protests came from the horses locked in the stables, rearing and kicking in their stalls as the acrid smoke began to drift into their nostrils. Everyone rushed into the yard. The scene of so much sublime theater was now in the grip of a real drama. Flames danced madly along one whole side of the building as the inferno really took hold. From the windows of the houses opposite in Gracechurch Street, an audience watched apprehensively in case the blaze would spread to their properties.
Buckets of water were hurled onto the fire but they could only stifle its ominous crackle momentarily. After each dousing, it surged afresh and threw dazzling shadows across the yard. The horses were rescued just in time. No sooner had the last frantic animal been led out of the stables with a blanket over its head than the beam above one of the stalls collapsed, sending burning embers crashing into the straw. It ignited immediately and showers of sparks were flung high into the air.
One careless moment with a pipe of tobacco threatened to bring down the entire inn. At its height, the conflagration was so furious and uncontrollable that the whole of the parish appeared to be at risk. And then, suddenly and unaccountably, the miracle occurred. It began to rain. Nobody noticed it at first. Even those who stood aghast in their night attire did not feel the early drops. The fire had warmed them through so completely that they were impervious to any other touch. The storm then intensified, turning a fine drizzle into a gushing downpour and making people run for cover. Rain lashed down with competitive ferocity, matching itself against the blaze and determined to win the contest.
It was an extraordinary sight. Unchecked by human hand, the bonfire slowly gave ground to the deluge. Yellow flames were gradually extinguished. Billowing smoke was steadily beaten away. In place of the hideous roar there came a long, spiteful, exasperated sizzle as the fire reluctantly yielded to a superior force. It still burned on for another hour but its venom had been drawn. Though providential rain had saved much of the inn, a sizable amount had been destroyed beyond all recognition. Somewhere in the middle of the debris, quite unaware of the chaos he had caused, lay Will Dunmow.
We are done for, Nick,” said Lawrence Firethorn sorrowfully. “Our occupation is gone.”
“The Queen’s Head can be rebuilt.”
“But what of Westfield’s Men in the meantime?”
“We do exactly what we did when we last had a fire,” said Nicholas Bracewell. “We quit London and take our talents elsewhere.”
“That was easy to do when the weather was fine and traveling was not too onerous. But the summer is past. Who will want to trudge around the provinces in cold, rain, and fog? Who will relish the idea of putting their shoulders to carts that are stuck ankle-deep in muddy roads? No, Nick,” Firethorn added, stroking his beard ruefully, “we have been burned out of existence.”
It was the following morning and they were standing in the yard, appraising the damage caused by the fire. Wisps of smoke still rose from some timbers, making it impossible for them to be moved by the servants who worked among the ruins. On the previous afternoon, Lawrence Firethorn, the company’s actor-manager, had taken the leading role in The Italian Tragedy and convinced everyone there that they were watching treachery unfold in the Mediterranean sun. Not even his manifold talents could conceal the truth now. The innyard was a scene of utter devastation. Galleries where spectators had once sat no longer existed. Rooms where guests had stayed were empty shells, silhouetted against the gray sky. Nicholas Bracewell, a sturdy man in his thirties, was only the book holder with the troupe but he was always the first person that Firethorn turned to in a crisis.
“What are we to do, Nick?” he asked.
“The first thing we must do,” replied the other practically, “is to help in every way to clear up this mess. We owe that to the landlord.”
“We owe that scurvy knave nothing!”
“This disaster affects us all. We must honor our obligations.”
“Had I been here when the fire started, I’d have been obliged to toss the landlord into the middle of the inferno. For that’s where the wretch belongs. A pox on it!” Firethorn cried, seeing the very man approach. “Here comes the little excrescence. I’ll wager he blames us for all this.”
“Then leave me to do the talking,” suggested Nicholas, only too aware of Firethorn’s long-standing feud with Alexander Marwood. “This is not the moment to enrage him even further.”
Marwood walked on. Sullen at the best of times, he was now thoroughly dejected, his eyes dull, his body slack, his movement sluggish. The nervous twitch that usually animated his ugly face was strangely quiescent. All the life had been sucked out of him, leaving only a hollow vestige.
“A word with you, sirs,” he began with a note of deference.
“We are listening,” said Nicholas. “There’s much to discuss.”
“I am on the brink of ruin.”
“Surely not. The fire was bad but nowhere near as destructive as the one that burned down the whole inn. You learned from that dreadful setback, Master Marwood. You replaced the thatch with tiles and it slowed down the progress of the blaze.”
“Yet it did not stop it from wreaking untold havoc, sir,” said Marwood, indicating the shattered remains with a sweep of a skeletal arm. “My livelihood has been all but snatched away from me. I must talk to you of compensation.”
Firethorn’s ears pricked up. “I’m glad that you mention that,” he said, entering the conversation for the first time. “Because we can no longer play here, Westfield’s Men have sustained the most inordinate losses. How much compensation do you intend to pay us?”
“As soon as possible.”
“But I am talking about the money that is due to me,” said Marwood, shaking off his torpor to adopt a combative pose. “It’s you who should pay the compensation, Master Firethorn.”
“Not a single penny, you rogue!”
“You were the cause of this catastrophe.”
“I was nowhere near the Queen’s Head last night!”
“Nevertheless, I lay the blame at your door.”
“How can that be?” asked Nicholas, stepping between the two men before Firethorn could strike the landlord. “We are as much victims of this disaster as you, Master Marwood.”
“Your actors set fire to my inn.”
“That’s a serious allegation.”
“Yet one that I can uphold,” said Marwood, wagging a finger under his nose. “Master Dunmow slept under my roof last night.”
“I remember him well—a pleasant young fellow and the soul of generosity. He put a deal of money in your purse.”
“Then took it straight out again.”
Nicholas blinked in surprise. “He stole from you?”
“In a manner of speaking. The fire started in his room.”
“How do you know?”
“Because we have the chamber directly above,” said Marwood. “My wife is a light sleeper. It was she who first became aware of the danger. By the time we got to it, the room below was a furnace.”
“Did your lodger escape?” said Nicholas with concern.
“He was too drunk to move. Yes—and that’s another thing for which you must bear the responsibility.”
Firethorn was scornful. “I told you that the rascal would blame us, Nick,” he said. “Take him away before I lay hands on him.”
“Let me hear all the facts,” said Nicholas, gesturing for Firethorn to be patient. “Continue, Master Marwood. You claim that the fire began in the room below you. How?”
“How else?” retorted the landlord. “With the candle.”
“The one I left alight in his room when they carried him up to it. Two of your men, Master Firethorn,” Marwood stressed. “They bore him up the steps between them. When they put him to bed, they must have forgotten to snuff out the candle. In the course of the night, Master Dunmow must have knocked it over and set my inn ablaze.”
“That’s pure supposition.”
“The finger points at the Welshman and his friend.”
“The very same. He drank till the very end.”
“Yet remained sober enough to carry a man to bed,” observed Nicholas. “I have more trust in Owen. He’d never leave a candle alight in such a situation.”
“Then how did the blaze start?”
“Divine intervention,” said Firethorn with a grim chuckle. “God finally tired of your miserable visage and lit a fire of retribution to send you off to hell where you belong.”
“You were to blame,” accused Marwood, voice rising to a pitch of hysteria. “If it had not been for your play, Master Dunmow would never have come near the Queen’s Head.”
“If it had not been for your heady wine,” argued Nicholas, “he would never have taken a room here. You served him enough to make him drunk and incapable.”
“Only because your actors urged him on.”
“From what I remember, Master Dunmow did the urging.”
“Yes,” agreed Firethorn sadly. “Young Will was a most amenable host—and that’s something we’ve never had at this inn before. If the fellow perished in the fire, I grieve for him.”
“And so should you, Master Marwood,” said Nicholas. “It must have been a gruesome death. As for the candle, let’s suppose that it was indeed the villain. Who set it in the room?”
Firethorn pointed at Marwood. “He did, Nick.”
“It all comes back to Westfield’s Men,” insisted the landlord. “You’ve been nothing but trouble from the start. This is not the first attack you unleashed on my property. When you performed The Devil’s Ride Through London, you reduced the Queen’s Head to ashes.”
“An unfortunate mishap,” said Nicholas. “Sparks flew up by accident into your thatch. We suffered as much as you while the inn was being rebuilt. We had to leave London.”
“The shame of it is that you ever came back.”
“Without us,” said Firethorn, inflating his barrel chest, “this place would be deserted. Westfield’s Men lend it true distinction.”
Marwood curled a lip. “True distinction, eh? Is that what you call it?” he taunted. “I saw no true distinction when you played A Trick to Catch a Chaste Lady. You set off such an affray in my yard that the inn was almost pulled to pieces. I swore that you’d never perform here again after that.”
“But wiser counsels prevailed,” said Nicholas. “You allowed us back in time.”
“And here is my reward.” The landlord turned to survey the wreckage. “This how I am repaid for my folly. Never again, sirs! You are banished from my inn forever. As for the fire,” he went on, rounding on them, “I’ll seek compensation from you in the courts. I’ve been cruelly abused by Westfield’s Men.”
“Then add this to the list of charges,” Firethorn told him.
Drawing his sword, he used the flat of it to hit Marwood’s backside with a resounding thwack and sent him hopping across the yard with his buttocks in his hands. Firethorn laughed heartily but Nicholas was less amused.
“Nothing was served by attacking the landlord,” he said.
“I had to do something to relieve my anger.”
“He owns the Queen’s Head—we do not. The day will come when we’ll need to woo the testy fellow yet again. And we’ll not do it with a sword in our hands.”
“No,” said Firethorn, sheathing his weapon. “As ever, you will be our ambassador, Nick. Soothing words from you will win that unsightly gargoyle over again.” He heaved a long sigh. “Though it will be many months before your embassy can begin.” He remembered something. “Our patron must hear of this. Lord Westfield will be mightily distressed at the tidings.”
“I’ll take on the office of telling him,” volunteered Nicholas.
“Ask him if he can aid us in some way.”
“Not with money, I suspect. His debts mount with each year.”
“You are behind the times, Nick. Our esteemed patron has had good fortune at last. His elder brother died earlier this year.”
“I knew that.”
“What you did not know is that he left him half his estate. Lord Westfield is transfigured. He has finally paid off his creditors.”
“Cheering news,” said Nicholas, “yet I look for no munificence from him. Unlike poor Will Dunmow, he is not given to charity. And talking of our erstwhile friend,” he added considerately, “we must send word to his family of his unfortunate end. Though we had only the briefest acquaintance with him, it behooves us to act on his behalf. The landlord will certainly not do so.”
“He’ll be too busy cooling his bum in a pail of water.”
“Owen Elias spent the longest time with Master Dunmow. He’ll know where the young man lodged in London and what friends he may have in the city.”
“It’s right to mourn for the dead but we must also have care for the living. Unless we can find somewhere else to play, the company will go into hibernation. A few of us will not fare too badly,” said Firethorn, “because we have other irons in the fire, but most of the lads will suffer grievously. An actor without a stage is like a man without a woman, lacking in the one thing that allows him to prove his true worth.” His gaze traveled around the yard. “Yesterday, we gave them The Italian Tragedy. This morning, we behold a real tragedy. Westfield’s Men have gone up in smoke.”
Nicholas was soulful. “That fate befell Will Dunmow,” he noted. “We live to perform another day. For that, we owe a prayer of thanks.”
“You are right, Nick.” Firethorn doffed his hat and began to unbutton his doublet. “And I believe that we do have a duty to clear some of this rubbish away.”
Nicholas slipped off his cap and his buff jerkin. “I’ve sent George Dart to fetch the others,” he said. “This is work for many hands. When he sees us helping here, the landlord’s heart may soften towards us.” Firethorn gave a snort of derision. “And there will be compensation of a sort for you, Lawrence.”
“Not from that death’s-head.”
“I was thinking of your wife. Margery will be delighted to see more of her husband in the next few months.”
“That’s a mixed blessing,” said Firethorn, recalling his wife’s violent temper. “But not in your case, Nick. Your domestic life is less troubled than mine. If the company goes to sleep throughout the autumn, you will see a great deal of Anne. That must content you.”
“Anne is planning another visit to Amsterdam.”
Located in Broad Street, the Dutch Church had once been part of an Augustinian monastery. After the dissolution, it had been granted to royal favorites of Henry VIII, who had promptly shown their religious inclinations by using it as a stable. When his young son, Edward, succeeded to the throne, he gave the nave and aisles of the church to Protestant refugees, most of whom were Dutch or German, but they were not allowed to enjoy the gift for long. At the start of Queen Mary’s reign, that devout Roman Catholic gave the foreign congregation less than a month to leave and she shunned them thereafter. The accession of Queen Elizabeth saw the immediate restitution of a building that resumed its title of the Dutch Church and acted as a central point for immigrant worshippers.
Anne Hendrik knew the place well and had attended many services there with her husband. A young Englishwoman with a quick brain, she had soon mastered Jacob Hendrik’s native language and learned a deal of German from him as well. A happy marriage was then cut short by the untimely death of the Dutchman, and his wife inherited the hat-making business that he had set up in Bankside. Showing a flair and acumen that she did not know she possessed, she managed the enterprise with considerable success. The reputation it achieved was not all Anne’s doing. Much of the credit had to go to Preben van Loew, her senior employee, a man whose talent and versatility brought in a stream of commissions.
It was the sober Dutchman who accompanied her on the long walk to church that morning. In a dangerous city, Anne was grateful for an escort, even one as taciturn as the emaciated old man.
“It’s kind of you to come with me, Preben,” she said.
“I like to pay my respects as well.”
“You were a good friend to Jacob.”
“We grew up together,” he said.
“And fled to England together as well. It must have been a shock to you when he chose to marry someone like me.”
“You were a good wife.”
“I like to think so,” said Anne with a nostalgic smile, “but you did not know that beforehand. You must have had serious doubts about me at first.”
The Dutchman was tactful. “I cannot remember.”
“A wise answer.”
Side by side, they continued along the busy thoroughfare of Broad Street. They were making one of their regular journeys to the churchyard to visit the grave of Jacob Hendrik. It was always a sad occasion but there was some solace for Anne. Having paid her respects to her late husband, she would have an opportunity to call on the man who had replaced him in her life, Nicholas Bracewell, a dear friend who had begun as a lodger before finding himself her lover as well. Gracechurch Street was within easy walking distance of the Dutch Church. Ignorant of the tragedy that had befallen the Queen’s Head, Anne proposed to stop there to watch a little of the day’s rehearsal.
As she bore down on the church, however, her mind was filled with fond memories of Jacob Hendrik, a hardworking man who had been forced to settle south of the river because the trades guilds resolved to keep as many foreign rivals as they could out of the city. On arrival in England, her future husband had met with resentment and suspicion. When they reached their destination, Anne was suddenly reminded of what he had had to endure.
“Not another one!” said Preben van Loew with disgust.
“Tear it down,” she urged.
“I wish to read it first.”
“It’s the work of a twisted mind, Preben.”
“A man should always know his enemy.”
The printed message was attached to the wall of the churchyard and had a stark clarity. Both of them read the opening lines.
You strangers that inhabit in this land,
Note this same writing, do it understand;
Conceive it well for safeguard of your lives,
Your goods, your children, and your dearest wives.
“They still hate us,” said the old man, shaking his head. “I have been here all these years and I am still a despised stranger.”
“Not in my eyes.”
“You are the exception.”
“No, Preben,” she said stoutly. “London is full of good, decent, tolerant citizens who would be repelled by this libel. Unfortunately, the city also harbors cruel and vicious men who envy the success that foreign tradesmen have.”
“They are many in number.”
“I do not believe that.”
“They are,” he said, rolling his eyes in despair. “Have you forgotten how easily the apprentices were incited to riot against us? We are despised and always will be.”
“When I see such vile accusations, it makes me ashamed to call myself English. At times like this,” said Anne, glancing into the churchyard, “I feel proud that I have strong Dutch connections. I feel sympathy for all who sought refuge here. You and Jacob had so much to bear when you left your own country.”
He shrugged. “It was no more than we expected.”
Wanting to turn away, she felt impelled to read more of the angry verse and saw a scathing attack on the government for allowing strangers to enter the realm.
With Spanish gold you are all infected
And with that gold our nobles wink at feats.
Nobles, say I? Nay, men to be rejected,
Upstarts that enjoy the noblest seats,
That wound their country’s breast for lucre’s sake,
And wrong our gracious Queen and subjects good
By letting strangers make our hearts to ache.
“Take it down, Preben,” she ordered. “Let us spare others the distress of having to read such hateful words.”
“It is best to ignore it altogether.”
“Remove it so that we may hand it over to a constable. It’s a malicious libel and the law protects you from such things.”
“They still keep coming,” he said dolefully.
“Commissioners have been ordered to take the utmost pains to discover the author and publisher of these attacks. When they are caught, they will face a heavy punishment. Take it down,” she repeated. “Nobody else can be insulted by it then.”
“As you wish.”
“And when you have done that, forget that you ever saw it.”
The Dutchman smiled. “I’ve already done so.”
Standing on tiptoe, he reached up to remove the verses from the wall. But they had a protector. No sooner did his hands touch the paper than a large stone was hurled from across the street. It struck his head with such force that his black skullcap was knocked off. Stunned by the blow, Preben van Loew fell to the ground with blood oozing from his head wound. Anne let out a gasp of alarm and bent down to help him. She did not see the figure that ran off quickly down a lane opposite. The libel on the wall of the Dutch churchyard was no idle jest. Someone was ready to enforce the warning against strangers.
Copyright © 2006 by Edward Marston. All rights reserved.