The Princess of Denmark: An Elizabethan Theater Mystery Featuring Nicholas Bracewell

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9780312356187: The Princess of Denmark: An Elizabethan Theater Mystery Featuring Nicholas Bracewell
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Winter approaches and Westfield's Men are out of work. When their widowed patron decides to marry again, he chooses a Danish bride with vague associations to the royal family. Since the wedding will take place in Elsinore, the troupe is invited to perform as guests of King Christian IV. One of the plays they select is The Princess of Denmark---and it will prove a disastrous choice.
Westfield's Men soon find themselves embroiled in political intrigue and religious dissension. Their patron, who has only seen a miniature of his future bride, is less enthusiastic when he actually meets the lady, but he can hardly withdraw. Murder and mayhem dogs the company until they realize that they have a traitor in their ranks. It is left to Nicholas Bracewell to solve a murder, unmask the villain, and rescue Lord Westfield from his unsuitable princess of Denmark.

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About the Author:

EDWARD MARSTON is a pseudonym for the award-winning author of more than seventy books. He has written fifteen previous mysteries featuring Nicholas Bracewell. He lives in England.

Excerpt. Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

Chapter One 
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 rema...

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