Symington Smythe, a would-be thespian, and fledgling dramatist Will Shakespeare meet at a tavern on the road to London and become travel companions and fast friends. Once in London, they wheedle their way into a company of players and wind up in the middle of romance, mystery, and intrigue.
Shakespeare and Smythe join the ranks of Wolfe and Goodwin, Holmes and Watson, and at times Abbott and Costello, as a lighthearted pair of amateur detectives stumbling in and out of danger and using their wits to survive both the conspiracies at hand and the cutthroat business of the Elizabethan theater.
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Simon Hawke is the author of such bestselling science fiction and fantasy series as Time Wars and The Wizard of Fourth Street, as well as the previous three volumes in the Shakespeare and Smythe mystery series. He lives in North Carolina.
A Mystery of Errors
THERE WAS NOTHING QUITE SO invigorating to the senses, Smythe decided, as ending a long and dusty day by being robbed. The mounted highwayman came plunging out of the thick underbrush at the side of the road like a specter rising from the mist as he reined in with one hand and drew his wheel-lock with the other. His black courser reared and neighed loudly as the masked man shouted out, "Stand and deliver!" Even under such startling and intimidating circumstances, Smythe could not help an instinctual assessment of the brigand's mount. A powerful and heavily muscled Hungarian with a proud carriage and admirable conformation, the courser pawed at the ground and pranced in place, responding to the knee pressure of its rider. The hooked head and bushy tail were characteristic of the breed, as was the long, thick mane that reached below the knees and would require a good deal of loving curry-combing to look so splendid and silky. A magnificent animal, thought Smythe, well-schooled and obviously well cared for. And the horse's master had a sense of the dramatic, too, something else Smythe could not help appreciating, despite the pistol aimed squarely at his chest. The brigand was clad from head to toe in black, with a silk mask that covered the entire lower portion of his face. He worea black quilted leather doublet, tight breeches, high boots, and a long black riding cloak that billowed out behind him. No ordinary road agent this, thought Smythe, but a man with a true sense of style. And apparently some substance, judging by his steed and his apparel. A flamboyant highwayman who was evidently successful at his trade and clearly understood the impact made by a good entrance. "Did you hear me, man, or are you deaf? I said, stand and deliver!" "Deliver what, my friend?" asked Smythe, with a shrug. "I haven't a brass farthing to my name." "What, nothing?" said the highwayman through the black silk scarf covering most of his face. "Come, come, let's see your purse!" Smythe took hold of the small brown leather pouch at his belt and gave it a shake, to demonstrate that it was empty. "You may dismount and search me if you like," he said, "but you shall find that I haven't a tuppence or ha'penny anywhere about my person." "Dismount and search a strapping young drayhorse like yourself? Methinks not. You look like you could pose some difficulty if I gave you half a chance." "Spoken with a pistol in your hand and a rapier and main gauche at your belt," said Smythe, wryly. "And me with nothing but a staff and poor man's bodkin." "Aye, well, one cannot take too many chances," said the highwayman. "The roads are not very safe these days." He chuckled and looked Smythe over, then tucked his pistol in his belt. "So, no money, eh?" "None, sir." "And how will you be paying for your next meal?" "If I shan't be catching it tonight with a snare or hook and line, then I fear that I shall not be eating," Smythe said. "Oh, well, we cannot have that," the highwayman replied."Here's a silver crown for you. Buy yourself an ordinary and a night's rest at the next crossroads." Surprised, Smythe almost missed catching the coin the robber tossed to him. "You are a strange sort of highwayman, indeed," he said, perplexed. "You demand money and end up giving it away, instead!" "Ah, you look as if you need it more than I do. No matter. I shall make it up and then some with the next fat merchantman who comes along." "However that may be, I am nevertheless grateful, " Smythe replied. "I shall be sure to say a prayer tonight that they do not catch and hang you very soon." "Most kind of you. What a splendid young fellow you are. I take it you are bound for London?" "I am," said Smythe, nodding. "In search of work." It was less a question than a statement. More than half the travelers on the road were starving beggars, making their way toward London in hopes of finding a better life. Or any kind of life at all. "Aye," said Smythe. "And God willing, I shall I find it." "You have a trade? You have the look of a blacksmith, with those shoulders." "My uncle is a farrier and a smith," said Smythe. "I apprenticed at his forge. But I hope to be an actor on the stage." "An actor?" The man snorted. "You had best stick to shoeing horses, lad. 'Tis a much more respectable profession." "So says the brigand." "Indeed, it takes one mountebank to know another," the highwayman replied. "But then, each to the devil after his own fashion. I wish you good fortune, young man. And if you care to, you can remember Black Billy in your prayers tonight. A word from an innocent like you might do some good, you never know. The Almighty bloody well stopped listening to me long since." The highwayman touched the brim of his black hat in saluteand then spurred off into the woods. The sound of his mount's hoofbeats quickly receded in the distance. Smythe decided that he probably wouldn't need to worry about hanging, riding through the thickets like that. He'd likely break his neck long before some magistrate could stretch it for him. It was certainly an interesting conclusion to a rather dreary and otherwise uneventful day, although it was his fourth time being robbed in as many days since he had left the midlands. Well, attempt at being robbed, in any event, he thought. The first three had been unsuccessful and this last one hardly seemed to count, seeing as how the highwayman had left him better off than he had been before. That was certainly a switch. He had never heard the like of it. The first attempted robbery had taken place shortly after sundown on his first day out, as he had made his way toward London. Two men brandishing clubs had leaped out at him from under the cover of the woods. They had been more desperate than dangerous and he had made short work of them with his staff and left them both insensible in the middle of the road, or what passed for a road, at any rate, in that part of the country. It was little more than a pair of muddy ruts running side by side through the forest, tracks made by peddlers' carts as they made their way from one small village to another, passing news and trying to sell their wares. The second attempt took place the very next day, but in broad daylight. Well, not quite daylight, perhaps, for little daylight had actually penetrated the thick canopy of branches overhead. This time, three surly and bedraggled men had accosted him, looking a bit more competent, armed with staves and daggers and demanding that he surrender all his money. The trouble was, he didn't have any. He had tried explaining that to them, in a reasonable fashion, but for some reason, highwaymen seemed a rather skeptical lot. They had insisted on searching him. Smythehad complied with their demand, seeing no harm in proving his point by demonstration and taking no unnecessary risks. On seeing that he was, in fact, as penniless as they, without even any decent clothes or weapons worth stealing, the disgusted robbers had let him go his way. The third attempt had taken place early in the morning, proving to Smythe that there was actually no safe time to travel at all. He had been walking through the woods when an arrow from a longbow thudded into a tree trunk just to his left, passing so closely that he had felt its breeze. Immediately, he ducked behind that very tree trunk, so as not to give the unseen archer a target for a second shot, then wasted no time in slipping back further into the woods and putting some distance between himself and the bowman. He had left the unseen archer behind him, the sound of his cursing receding in the distance, and took his time before he ventured out upon the road again. He then continued on his way without further incident, until the mounted highwayman accosted him ... only instead of robbing him or trying to kill him, the brigand had given him a silver crown. It was a singular occurrence, indeed. All in all, Smythe had to admit that he had met more interesting people in the past four days on the road than he had during all the years that he had spent in the village of his birth ... save for the time the actors had come through. The Queen's Players, featuring the famous Dick Tarleton, had put on a performance in the courtyard of The Goose and Gander. With the open sky above them, they had erected a small stage in the courtyard of the inn, with several screens behind the stage to make a tiring-room where costumes could be changed, and the entire village had attended their performance. Smythe had never seen anything like it. Somehow, that little group of men had managed to turn a small wooden platform supported by several barrels into another world, another place and time. Tarleton and Will Kemp, the two comedians of the troupe, had everyone helplesswith laughter at their jigs and capers and from that moment on, Smythe had wanted nothing more than to be among those men and on that stage himself. His father disapproved, of course. A life as a player was totally unsuitable and utterly out of the question. While working at his uncle's forge was no more a fit occupation for a gentleman, his father had believed that it could do a lad no harm to learn a bit of industry and develop an eye for iron, steel, and horseflesh. Those would certainly be useful things to know for a man of standing and position. But acting? The very mention of it had driven his father to apoplexy. Actors were nothing but immoral vagabonds whose careers were built on lies and fancy. He had stormed and thundered and threatened to disown him. The dream of acting, it had seemed, was destined to wither on the vine. Instead, it was his father's dream which had died before ever bearing fruit. Symington Smythe's great, ambitious dream had been th...
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