Nelly Woodcliff was standing by the window in a small room overlooking the common area in a village inn. The acting company had been to the Plough Inn before, in the village of Lockley. But still, she was terrified of the scene below her. With a dry throat, she swallowed hard, creating an audible gulp. All she could do was pray that her nerves would hold. The crowds gathered inside the inn, were there to be entertained at the outdoor stage in the courtyard, once the play started. For a tiny moment, she teetered on the edge of pulling out.
Surrounding her, in the same room, was the chatter of cousins, along with other close family members who were to perform in the play. They all awaited their turn to take the stage. But Nelly had cut out their babbling noise, that was something she was good at, drifting deep into her thoughts. It was a skill she had learned over the years, as part of her training.
A good actor must shut out the ambient noise around them and concentrate solely on their role. I will overcome my stage fright so I can perform on the stage, and in front of my audience.
What if they laugh at me, instead of with me?
Her dark mop of curls sat atop her head, fixed in place with faux pearl hair pins to give her a look of wealth. All part of her role in the popular play, which was titled Forced Marriage.
What if they can tell this is my first performance?
She inhaled deeply again; another method of training that should help her relax. Nelly was ready for the performance. White-powder makeup had been dapped all over her already porcelain completion. Heavy makeup gave the actors a dramatic pale appearance. The dull white gown she wore, was to be her wedding dress in one of the scenes.
“I can see that you are agonizing over everything that could go wrong,” her mother’s voice came to her as she lay her arm over her daughter’s shoulder. “With your skill and acting ability, nothing will be amiss.”
“Oh, Mother, how do you know?” Nelly’s dark red lips formed the question as her voice quivered. Her lips felt sticky, and her skin prickled with a cold sensation, sending rippling tingles through her body. The stage makeup felt constricting as if it was clogging her skin and depriving her of air.
“Because I know how talented my daughter is,” her mother replied with a confident smile. “These last-minute nerves are good for you; did you know that?”
“I don’t see how being a withering wreck could enhance my performance?” Nelly questioned, not convinced her mother spoke the truth.
“It means, my dear, that you are a true performer,” her mother insisted. “Those who worry are the ones who care, which will push you on to perform at your very best.”
“But is my best good enough?” Nelly asked, still unsure if she was ready for her first main role in the play. She had performed supporting roles aplenty, but none had placed her in the limelight. “Let’s be honest, Mother, none of us know how I will perform. I may fall to pieces with the first word I utter.”
“Acting is in your blood, child, and don’t you forget that.” Her mother refused to support her daughter's dreary thoughts. “You are as skilled as your mother ever was, and her mother before her too.”
“You think so?” Nelly looked at her mother with a wide-eyed stare. “You will take some beating, Mother. If I recall, Delilah Woodcliff was the best around for years and years.”
“Might I remind you that you have been acting since before you could even talk?” her mother smiled, wanting to remind her daughter that this was not new to her.
“I know, but that was for fun, this…this is for real,” Nelly shook her head, raising her arm to indicate the audience below.
“You, my dear, are the ultimate professional and you know all the tricks in the book. If you forget your lines you improvise. No one will know, not if you do it with a natural flare. I don’t need to tell you this though, do I?” her mother assured her. “You were born to take a leading role, and it is time to take up that mantle. The role in this play was written for you, that’s how perfect you are.”
“But…but look at them,” she said, still with a tremor in her voice as she returned to peer through the glass of the small window. “They look like savages, Mother, untamed even. They will shred me to pieces if they suspect I am flawed.”
“Look at yourself first, daughter. You are not only beautiful, but you are talented too. The women will envy you, and the men will all want to hold you.”
“But will they appreciate my acting? Will they clap me off the stage instead of wanting me to stay on it?”
“The people you see before you in the crowd, they are watching you because they seek to be entertained. These people pay their hard-earned coin to see us telling them a tale. They truly want to be there my dear.” Her mother tried to explain as she came to join her daughter at the small window. “It is true, some of them are a little rough around the edges.”
“Yes, Mother, they have a look of wildness about them. And let’s not forget that the mead might encourage them to be loud.”
"If you capture their eyes, you will find no malice. They are here to escape their hard lives. You are right to worry that they do not appreciate those who are worthless, for they do not have the time to waste. What they long for is to be taken into a world of fantasy. That’s why they are going to adore a talented young actor such as yourself. They are your future followers, my dear. What's more, they are going to fall in love with you.”
"I wish I had your confidence, Mother,” Nelly said, her eyes going to the floor as she felt her shame.
“By the end of the night, the mead will lull them into a peaceful daze. But to begin with, it heightens their senses. That means that they appreciate the time in which they can find an escape from the drudgery of their lives.” Her mother continued to explain how her daughter should perceive her audience.
“I would imagine that an actor is more appreciated in theatre buildings than by the drunkards of an inn.”
“No, that is far from the truth,” her mother snapped back. “Whenever you perform to your own kind of people — the commoners, the farmers and factory workers, miners, beggars and even women of the street, you act from your heart because you will feel their appreciation. Theirs is a genuine love of a play, it is their only escape, as much as it is yours. Those who perform for the wealthier audience in the big theatre houses, like the nobility, they do so for financial gain only, and not for art. I am convinced of this.”
“Hmmm…at least a wealthy audience will not look as rough and ready as that lot below,” Nelly argued. “They petrify me, Mother. The disadvantaged will have no misgivings about throwing fists at me, should they decide I am not worthy of their time.”
“You misjudge your people, my dear. Although I suppose there is some truth that they will be quick to judge. If they enjoy your performance, which they will, they will throw adoration your way. And that is priceless.”
“Nelly! Nelly! Come over here and join us. We are rehearsing before we go on,” Daisy, her cousin, shouted over
“Go on” her mother encouraged. “You know what it is I say all the time, practice makes perfect.”
“Thank you, Mother,” Nelly said, taking her mother’s hand in hers. “I hope every daughter has a mother such as you. You make me feel so confident with your words of encouragement.
“What else is a mother to do?” her mother smiled at her daughter in fondness, “Besides, it's easy for me, I have every faith in your abilities.”
“Do I look the part?”
“My darling, you are the part, now off you go and get some rehearsing done,” her mother pushed. But before Nelly moved away, she added, “You know we have performed this play multiple times for the people of the streets. And every time it has been a huge success. But never have we had such a beautifully talented Dorimene among our cast. You are the perfect, delicate butterfly to play this role.”
Nelly's face flushed at such a wonderful compliment from her mother.
“Look in the mirror and see how you blush with innocence. My dear daughter, that is what is going to win over the hearts of your audience,” her mother encouraged. “See how your bright red lips clash with your white powdered face? How you carry your elaborate hair style that sits upon your head with props aplenty. And beneath all of that, I can still see the softness in your eyes that will carry your expressions to your audience.”
“I look like you, Mother, with all this stage makeup on,” Nelly pointed out. “But I like looking like you. Knowing that will lend me some confidence.
“You do, my love. Now off you go, they’re waiting for you.”
Nelly hugged her mother and dashed over to the cast who would be out there on the stage with her any time soon. Some of them were family members and others were close friends, but they all loved her, and her heart filled with love for them too.
Straight away she was able to jump into the leading role, not even needing to ask which part they were rehearsing. To add to the charm of the play, the main male role was being played by a female actor. The play had comedic scenes, but it built up to the grand finale of a tragic ending. Because that was what the audience loved, and they would be well and truly entertained.
Nelly’s mother was the principal owner of the acting company, as her family had been since it began generations ago. The group of actors who toured with the company, whether family members or not, they were all like one big family. And so, Nelly knew them all, and each of them would support her developing role. Most of them had been with the touring company for many years. They had watched Nelly grow into the leading role she was about to perform for the first time. And all of them shared her mother's opinion, that Nelly was born to act.
“Are you to tell me that my new husband has taken on a mistress?” Nelly repeated her lines, getting into the drama without even realizing that she had done so, such was her talent. “But ours was a marriage born from a business agreement, and not out of love. What care I for such indiscretions?”
This scene dictated that she plays a cheated wife, and that she did not care, for hers was an arranged marriage, as the title implied. Later in the play, she would cheat on her husband, and by the end of it, he would murder her for her indiscretion. It was a play that brought about laughter and tears, written for a specific audience so that the poor could poke fun at the rich.
Nelly had seen the play re-enacted many times over the years, even with her parents in the leading roles. But now, it was her turn, and her cousin, Daisy, played her husband. It was also Daisy’s debut and when rehearsals were done, they huddled together in a show of support for one another.
“I have the easier role, Daisy, at least I am playing the fairer sex,” Nelly said. “You have the added awkwardness of playing a man!”
“Yes, but you have to die in the last scene, I wouldn’t have a clue how to play such a part,” Daisy said.
“Hah! So, you're comfortable with murdering me then?” Nelly asked, laughing.
“Oh, I hope we do the scene justice,” Daisy added, burrowing her brows into a deep frown with worry.
“Every rehearsal has gone well, so why shouldn’t the real thing?” Nelly encouraged, knowing her cousin needed as much support as she did.
“You are right, cousin, and playing alongside you is a real honour,” Daisy told her, and she meant it. “You are by far the best actor in the group, Nelly, and don’t you forget it.”
“That's a lot for me to live up to,” Nelly said, fretting over the thought. “With words like that, how can I dare make a mistake?”
“You have proven that you are good at covering over any mistakes, so you have nothing to worry over,” Daisy assured her. “Besides, your mother would not have put you in the leading role if she thought for one moment you were not ready.”
“There are others in the group who could play the part better, but Mother is pushing me to do it. She says it is time for me to consider taking over the company, but I don’t know… I don’t feel ready for it.”
“You have me by your side, always, don’t you ever forget that,” Daisy said cheerfully.
“You are like a sister to me, Daisy—”
“Role call!” her mother shouted out, reeling off the names of the actors for the next scene, one of which was her daughter.
“Here we go.” Nelly had a nervous quiver on her lips. She was anxious because a leading role was far more stressful than a supporting one. But her mother had been right, if she forgot her lines, she knew exactly how to flow with her dialogue. Now it was time to pray that her hands would stop shaking and that her voice would carry to the audience and not sound so fretful.
“Break a leg!” Daisy called after her.
“You too, Daisy. I’ll see you out there soon.”
She had changed into a plain cream day dress for the coming scene, for she was to look the part of a bride. The stage was set for her wedding day, and Daisy would be wearing a man’s tailored jacket with tight pants and knee boots. As soon as she got to the last creaky, wooden step of the inn, she danced through the back door of the inn and into the yard. There, she climbed onto the wooden stage that she had acted upon so many times before, but never in such an important capacity. Nelly began her lines.
“Must I marry him, Father?” she began. “My heart is with another, and well you know it.”
As she pointed her face upwards for the part, she spotted her mother peeking through the same window she had been looking through earlier. It eased her mind to know her mother was not far away.
The crowd in front of the stage watched her closely and in an eery silence. They saw it as their role to cheer of jeer, depending on their mood.
The theatre appeared dark and lifeless inside. It was a typical dreary atmosphere when all the house lights were out. Even the huge high-ceiling room was filled with black and grey shadows lurking in the unseen crevices. The smoky, tallow candled, and oil-fed elaborate chandeliers would not be lit until the evening show. And then, the entire building would come to life with laughter and chatter, and the thunderous sound of applause.
Faint voices could be heard echoing from the stage, as a few actors rehearsed for the evening performance. From the edges of the stage, candle lamps illuminated it, giving it a warm and welcoming glow. The golden light fought hard to cut through the lonely darkness. But in the darkened shadows that blanketed the rows of seats, a man observed the actors. This was not just any gentleman, it was the owner of the theatre, Lord Oliver Northbury, the Duke of Grafton.
He was not an actor by any means, but his family had owned the theatre for many generations. Being involved in his father’s business dealings as he grew up, he knew all the intricacies of a good performance. Yet what he was witnessing at the rehearsal was not at all good. One could say it was professional, and no doubt the critics would pen positive reviews. Yet the performers lacked a vibrancy in their craft. It was a vibrancy he had not seen in any performance for many years. Many of the older actors had retired from the theatre, and the upcoming ones didn’t have the same level of pride in their craft. So, his search continued as he combed the area to find new talent.
He waited patiently for the rehearsal to conclude. As the actors stopped, he moved with silent footsteps. As he walked upon the carpeted floor, he took a few wooden steps to enter the back of the stage. There, he met his leading lady, Miss Margaret Lockhart. He knew her to be sensitive to criticism, so he would first start by complimenting her. That would lead on to telling her how he felt her performance was lifeless. Actors, he knew, were fickle creatures, and he would tread with the greatest of care when it came to doling out critique.
“Margaret, my stunning star of the show, let us talk if you have a spare moment for me?” Oliver said in a half-jolly tone as he approached his leading lady, though he bore the look of stressful worry. Being the owner of the theatre house and not an actor, he wasn’t sure how if Margaret would take his criticism. He had learned to always start any conversation with an actor, with a compliment. Never so was this more necessary, given Margaret’s temperament.
“If you’re giving out such wonderful compliments, darling, I will talk with you anytime,” Margaret replied. Oliver knew that she relished being the centre of attention, most especially from the wealthy theatre owner. From what he’d been told, she’d had a crush on him for years, but he paid no heed to idle gossip.
“I can only put it down to an off day, but where is the passion in your performance today?” Oliver asked, treading as lightly as he dared, without actually insulting her skills.
“Oh, my darling,” Margaret called out in an exaggerated, husky voice, for she wanted all to see that the Oliver was paying her attention. “You know me, I’m saving my best performance for the real thing. You will see your stunning star of the show tonight.”
Oliver watched Margaret wave her arms around as she spoke. This was a woman who played out her life as one big melodrama, and it reflected in her character
“I sincerely hope so. I want to see the terror in your eyes at the shock you have witnessed. I want to feel the heat in your heart emanate from the stage as your lover dies in your arms. What I don't want to see is this cold, stale-looking character that you have portrayed in rehearsals today.”
“What?” Margaret looked horrified at the words that passed through Oliver’s lips. “Stale-looking indeed! What do you know of acting?” she called out in her deep, husky tone, that often became hoarse if she shouted too loud. “The fault, Oliver, lays with you, my dear. Your expectations are far too great. Why should an actor need to shine in rehearsals? Tonight, you will see me in my full glory, as you always do in a show. I trust you will be there to witness my stunning performance, and then give me your sincere apologies?”
“Ah, alas no,” Oliver told her, unperturbed by her outburst. “I have another engagement on this occasion. Nonetheless, do give your performance a little more care.”
“Your role should be to attend every performance, darling, and not be drifting away from your responsibilities," Margaret tutted. He could see that she was readying for a sparring session that he did not care for.
“I bid you farewell, for now, Margaret. Please heed my words,” he warned before turning to head straight to his office. Margaret did not have the opportunity to retort, though she looked enraged. He knew it would leave her frustrated with him, though he had little care.
As he opened the door to the office, Oliver was fuming under his collar. “That woman needs to improve, and soon, or I will be sending her packing,” he mumbled to Charles, the company leader.
“I gather you’ve been upsetting our leading lady once again?” Charles asked as he looked upon the sour face of his employer.
The office was a windowless little room, and the air was stifling with the swirling smoke from lighted candles. It caused Oliver to cough as he started to take off his top clothes.
“Are you going out again? Surely, you’re not going to miss the show?” Charles asked, his dark brown eyes going wide with surprise.
“Tuck in your ever-growing belly, Charles, and expand your mind a little. Both would do you some good,” Oliver remarked, taking off his pants. “You know, Margaret is no longer a girl, and we would do well giving her roles that are more fitting of her age.”
“Gracious me, Oliver! Don’t you ever let her hear you talking in that way, or we’ll have no leading lady,” Charles puffed as he took a seat to catch his breath.
“If Margaret is not capable of developing into a role more suited to her age, then I will most certainly replace her,” Oliver snapped back. At the same time, he pulled up a different set of pants, that had the look of shabbiness about them.
“I see that you’re pretending to be a commoner again,” Charles remarked, rubbing his podgy hand through a few greasy golden curls on his balding head of hair. “Where is it that you go this time? Some crude street play that's performed by rogues, and has rabble for an audience?”
Oliver wagged his finger at his company manager, tucking in a shirt that was two sizes too big for him. “You underestimate the skills of the traveling theatre groups, my man. Their blood is invested in their trade.”
“Their blood is dirty if you ask me,” Charles mumbled, furrowing his brows in a scowl. “Well… perhaps I overstep the mark, but you were the one who brought in their blood. Truly though, Oliver, they really are quite crude people.”
“Tonight, I will be watching one of the touring theatre’s perform ‘Forced Marriage,’ and I understand they have a new leading lady in it,” Oliver explained. “And I’m always on the lookout for good actors.”
“Why would our theatre need to take on such unprofessional performers? I have no understanding of why you have this need to watch street shows. Not when you can sit in the comfort of your own glamorous theatre, alongside nobility?” Charles asked, still not happy at what his employer was about.
“Because I appreciate art in all its forms, Charles. If you have nothing to compare, but one set of actors, how can you know you have the best?” Oliver said, putting on a cheaply tailored earth-brown jacket. It would keep out the cold while he mingled among the outdoor audience of commoners.
“You are a duke, not a commoner!” Charles pointed out the obvious with a raised voice, which caused him to cough into his grubby hands. “You don’t know what might happen out there. These crowds can get mighty rough if they don’t like what they see.”
“Then it is well that I can take care of myself, isn’t it, old friend?” Oliver said politely. “You should get something for that cough,” he added, patting Charles on the back to help clear his lungs. “I bid you farewell, and I’ll see you on the morrow.”
The small cough that rumbled in Charles’ chest was now a full-blown fit of heaving coughs. It meant that Charles could no longer complain over his employer's actions. As he attempted to clear out his airways, he stood up to follow Oliver, but to no avail. The coughing fit had rendered him incapable of following, while Oliver made good his escape.
Leaving through a back door of the Grafton Theatre house, Oliver knew that his common disguise was sufficient to keep him out of trouble. He had done this many times in the past and considered it worthwhile. All he wished to do was watch and learn, as his father had taught him this was the way to find good talent.
Oliver was glad to see that the rain had held off. It had been threatening to ruin the evening, all day, as well as make the roads slippery and unsafe. But he always preferred the evening shows, it meant he could hide better among the crowds. But even in the dark the narrow streets of London soon became congested. Horses rattled by with their carriages in tow, and drunken louts wavered around threateningly. All went about their business, and none cared about anyone who might happen to get in their path. At least most of the street vendors had taken their wares home, allowing more open spaces on the cobbled lanes.
Trundling through the foul-smelling passageways, Oliver dodged broken glass. As he looked down, he pondered on other indescribable, offensive offerings that were underfoot, and did his best to pass it all by.
Finally, he arrived at the inn he had been searching for. The Wooden Keg had a large courtyard where they allowed traveling entertainers to perform. Though it surprised him at the large size of the crowd that night. It seemed that all the commoners in the district had come to be entertained by the outdoor performance.
The wooden stage was set up in front of the crowd, and the play had already begun. Oliver didn't mind as he’d only missed the first scene, so it meant there were another four to go. Making his way to the front, all faces were staring at the stage, so no one gave him a second glance.
Instantly, he recognized the scene and smiled once he realized that the leading male role was played by a woman. Quite the opposite to what they often did in the larger theatres, whereby a man would often play a female role. But then he did not expect a traveling theatre to stick to any rules. They played to a different clientele, and that dictated a different set of guidelines.
Towards the end of scene two, the leading lady finally appeared on stage, and Oliver was struck by her beauty. She was young, so he doubted that her acting skills would match her standard of attractiveness, but how wrong he was.
From the first word that passed her lips, he knew she was perfect for the role of Dorimene. The play was about a noble woman forced into a marriage. Later, she was to catch her new husband embraced in another woman’s arms. Oliver watched in awe as the scene played out and the leading lady won over the audience. They were completely enthralled by her performance. All were entranced as she portrayed her suffering at finding such a scene in her own parlour, set upon the stage.
The commoners booed, but not at the excellent performance of Dorimene, no, they caterwauled at her sufferance and called out in support of her. She had won them over in an instant, and the crowd loved her. As the second scene came to a close, Oliver witnessed how enraptured the audience had become in only two scenes. This was theatre at its very best, capturing the audience in such a way that his own leading lady was not doing of late.
Scene three opened, with the leading lady weeping under a tree prop. Who should happen to pass her by but her childhood sweetheart. A man she had been forced to spurn because of the arranged marriage. Throughout the scene, he comforted her, and the crowd cheered for him. As they kissed at the end of the scene, the crowd was delirious with enthusiasm, happy that Dorimene had found comfort in someone she trusted.
Charles’s words of referring to this audience as savages returned to his mind. Oliver knew they were not refined, but they invested such rich emotions into their entertainment. These people were far more passionate about a play than any of the nobility. His wealthy clientele, dressed in all their colourful regalia, were far more concerned about how they looked to their peers. Few showed a true interest in the show. Their purpose for visiting the theatre was merely to show off their rich silks and other refinery. Who had the grandest carriage and finest horses? Who had the largest feather hat, or the most colourful gown? That was their only ambition when they entered his theatre house.
But the honesty invested by the commoners as they watched the show play out, was unbeatable. That was why he loved the traveling theatre so much. Traveling actors played their characters as if their lives depended on it, and that resulted in a true and raw performance.
Of course, he knew how the story ended in this play, but he found himself filled with great anticipation whenever Dorimene took to the stage. He knew every word she would speak, so when she strayed off the lines, he applauded her courage to improvise with even better prose. She not only looked the part, but she gave her own take on how it should be played out. The young actor was marvellous, and he didn’t want the play to ever come to an end.
As expected, it finally comes to its inevitable tragic end with the husband murdering his bride. Oliver thought, almost wishing it was the other way around, for she deserved to live on and find happiness.
He roared with the crowd as they shed their tears. The murder scene sent a wave of anger through the audience, mixed with other raw emotions that they were not afraid to show. Never have I seen the crowd so enraptured by a scene in a play.
The commoners might wear dull greys and browns that were shabby in appearance, but they were true to their cause. Compared to the well-dressed nobility in his classy theatre building, he would choose the commoners any day. None were out to impress the other, all they wanted was good, honest entertainment. The character of Dorimene has given them all that they hoped for when they paid their coin to watch this play.
The crowd roared; but this time for an encore. They were demanding more, and Oliver shouted along with them, though there were no more scenes to be played out. Their shouts for Dorimene echoed around the inn's courtyard. They adore her.
Right on cue, the entire cast came to take their final bow. Dorimene was forced to stand forward as they continued to yell her name at the tops of their voices.
Some are shouting themselves hoarse, for they want so much to see Dorimene alive and well one last time. It shocked Oliver as he found himself joining in, so emotional was the moment. His hands ached with all the excessive clapping he had been doing, along with everyone else. He even whistled as he put fingers to his mouth to ensure the shrill noise rose above everyone else’s.
This is a night to remember. I have to come back for more, for I am hooked.
“And now, for one night only,” the leading lady called out. “Here is the ending that should have been.”
The crowd hushed at the sound of her voice, all wanting to hear her words. Oliver was as mesmerised as everyone else in the crowd. The actors took to the stage and an unknown scene was enacted. In the scene before them, Dorimene’s lover came upon the stage to murder her husband. The scene ended where he saved her from the inevitable death scene. As he embraced her in his arms, he told her that she was safe from the monster.
The entire crowd had pushed forward in their eagerness for the unexpected scene. Oliver found himself squeezed against the wooden frame of the stage from his standpoint at the front. Loose splinters from the wood threatened to pierce his hands but he had no care, like everyone else, he wanted to see the play. It seemed that the audience had grown, as more had joined at the back. Oliver turned to look at the growing audience, he knew that word must have spread like wildfire about the extra scene. A scene never before played out, and a scene that everyone wants to witness, including me.
He knew that this was an experienced traveling show. How they came up with such a brilliant idea as this is beyond my understanding. Was it the new leading lady’s idea? Maybe she did not like the fact that she dies, and so she’s giving her audience a better ending. She is indeed a force to be reckoned with. I have to meet with her. I must know if this was her invention, her doing, for if it was, then she is gifted indeed.
At the end of a play, Oliver would usually leave early so that he could return in time for his own theatre ending. But not on this night. This night he would stay behind and watch every second of the leading lady’s performance. He would join in with the crowd and feel their emotions as they all enjoyed a night of stupendous entertainment.
As Oliver mingled among the crowd, he was pleased that the entertainment had not stopped at the close of the play. Not normally one to hang around after a performance, he had no idea that the inn continued to distract their patrons from the toils of their day. The innkeeper had found a way to encourage them to drink more of his ale, with continued entertainment. The aroma of meat lingered in the air, as patrons tucked into the innkeeper’s meals. But where was Nelly he wondered.
The stage might have emptied of its actors, but they had soon been replaced with musicians. Not the usual orchestral groups that Oliver was used to at a soiree or a ball, but more of a gathering of commoners who shared their love of music. A fiddle player strummed out a little dancing ditty, while another man joined him, playing his flute. They were skilful players and just as good, or so he thought, as any professional orchestra he had the pleasure of listening to. Still, he looked around the crowds for Nelly.
Before long, a drummer joined in. All that was missing was a harp or even a pianoforte. Whether they were a regular band, or individuals coming together, he did not know. Only that they were soon strumming together in perfect harmony.
Making his way in all corners of the courtyard, he searched to see if the actors had joined the crowd. Passing the corner, a woman dressed in a scraggy, long dress that revealed her bare shoulders, jumped upon the table to dance. She lifted up the skirt of her dress to show her ankles and cheers sounded out as the patrons gave out a rhythmic clap to the beat of the drum.
All the while Oliver’s mind was thinking about the charming leading lady of the play. Where was she? The actors would return to join in the celebrations, he was sure of it. He must seek her out and tell her how much he’d admired her performance. Oliver could not help but compare her to his own theatre’s leading lady, but there was no comparison to be made. She was far superior to Margaret, in looks, acting skills, and dare he suggest, energy and vivacity.
The actress in the traveling theatre was exactly what his own theatre house needed. Exciting new talent such as she was, would breathe new life into his shows. The vivaciousness of such an actress as this one could only lend a new spirit to his plays, taking the entertainment value to new heights. Here was a young actress who had her entire crowd entranced with her performance, and completely under her spell. He had to have her in his shows, at whatever cost it might endure. If only he could find her.
The lively music lifted his spirits even further if that was possible. Oliver had not felt this good in such a long time. He continued to observe the crowds in search for Nelly. Many had stayed behind and serving trays were ladened with ales and stews, served by the buxom barmaids of the inn. If the inn could garner such profits from hosting this traveling troupe, then so too could his theatre house. But the world of acting wasn’t only about business, it was a deep passion that only few understood well. And when he found Nelly, he would discuss that passion while he fawned over her, for this was more than an interest in her skills; he adored her.
Filled with a renewed enthusiasm, he started to join in the festivities, unable to resist the cheer surrounding him. There was even a bard now going around the crowd, filling his hat with coin as he called out his verse. The crowd embraced all the arts, especially so after copious amounts of ale.
Workers from around the area, farmers and pickers still wearing muddy tunics. Unwashed factory workers, and even women of the night in their low-cut ragged dresses. All had ventured to join in the fun. It was so very different from his establishment, and he loved every minute. He would love it even more if only he could find Nelly among this rowdy lot.
If only he could get such a reaction from his own patrons. Immediately after one of his plays came to an end, the crowd would gather in the large hallway as they left. Their only concern was to show off their gowns, or even their mistresses, as they made their way to their shiny carriages. They did nothing but gossip about one another; whereas here, he could hear the chatter was still about the play. People debated over the ending; whether it should be changed or remain a tragedy. Never would the nobility show such passion over a mere show.
It was one of the reasons why Oliver loved to attend the street plays. He was giddy with excitement, likened to when he was a child at Christmas. The people who gathered to watch such shows embraced the art of acting. Commoners were not bound by the rules of high society, and he had a sudden feeling of pity for his wealthier clientele. Theirs was a life ruled by directions and expectations, with no room for pure let-your-hair-down joy. Now, where was she? The beautiful woman who lit up the entire stage when she appeared. Where was Nelly?
As the night wore on and the ale flowed, many were getting up from their seats to dance. Completely unabashed, they created their own dancing steps. Even laughing at themselves for their foolish behaviour. They did not care what their neighbour thought, for they were laughing too.
Oliver went inside the inn's common room in search for Nelly. Both inside and out in the courtyard, people of the lower class were having fun. They spilled out through the front door and onto the streets of London, loud laughter ringing out into the night sky. Older children ran around in little gangs, some sneaking the dregs of ale from the bottom of glasses. While others joined in the dancing with their inebriated parents. Age was no barrier in an evening’s entertainment of this calibre.
And it was all sparked from the enjoyment of the play. Had the play been a dreary one, the mood might have been different. But Nelly had given them a renewed hope in their life, with her raw, salacious performance. Her appetite for acting had entranced the audience and left them all feeling good about themselves. These people, despite their rough edges, embraced the art form to its fullest and were better for it. Is that not what true entertainment should be about? But where oh where is she?
Again, he looked upon the stage, longing for the leading lady to show her face again. But if he wished to see her then he would need to attend tomorrow’s performance. Traveling actors were always a tight-knit group, guarding each other against prying eyes. Getting to speak with her would not be easy. Not even coin would buy his way through the protective outer layer of such a team.
Instead, he decided to join in the dancing. The ale in his belly was beginning to affect his judgment. It was time to join in with those around him and have fun.
Just then, he spotted one of the cast members dancing in the crowd. By her side was the leading lady, out in the open and being one with the crowd. He could make out her features by the silvery moonlight, along with the yellow glow of the oil lamps. Her face was flushed with energy. As he got closer to her, she looked more beautiful than he had first thought, if that was even possible.
The lines of an old sonnet came to his mind, for poetry was his second love. He had not realised that he was standing still and quoting one of his favourite love poems of Edmund Spencer:
“But looking still on her, I stand amazed
At wondrous sight of so celestial hue.”
Blinking, he became alert and walked over to the group, offering to pay for a round of drinks. Cheers erupted at the proposal, and he waved over for one of the servers to deliver five large jugs of ale to the party. Experience told him there was no better way to ingratiate yourself with an actor, especially following a performance. By seeing to their needs with alcohol, it helped to dampen their highly strung nerves. Performing on a stage took a lot out of them, and after a show, they loved to unwind.
Wasting no more time, now that he had infiltrated the circle, he soon found himself standing by the side of their leading lady. She was already swaying to the rhythm of the music, and he joined in. He was thankful that he knew the steps to the dance she was enjoying.
“You dance well, my friend,” she sang out to him, giving him a most gracious smile. Her voice was soft, yet it rang out to him as if she were still on stage.
“I find dancing almost as entertaining as watching a play. It soothes the soul,” he replied but found he had to speak quite loudly to be heard over the rowdy noise around them.
Dancing beside her was indeed an unusual pleasure; never would a lady of the nobility allow a man to dance by her side in such a way. Being among the common folk brought with it a certain level of freedom. And so, he would cast off the shackles of high society and make the most of it. Even if his reasons were selfish; to get close to the talented beauty.
Whilst she did not speak again, she had accepted him silently as her partner in the dance. Oliver was not one to miss out on such an opportunity and felt no shyness, being of a confident nature he made haste to open up a conversation.
“Your performance tonight was superb,” he told her while she passed under his arm as the dance steps required.
“Why thank you kindly, sir," she replied, smiling as she carried out the dance moves. "Believe it or not, it was my debut performance, so to speak.”
For a short while, they parted, following other dancers in the group as the moves dictated, but they soon came back together again.
“May I be so bold as to ask a lady her name?” he asked as soon as he took her fingertips in his hand to finish the move. By now he was panting slightly, for this was a vigorous set of dance steps, making conversation quite difficult.
Her face was already flushed and she glowed with the energy of youth. But beneath, he could sense a certain shyness in her soft brown eyes as she glanced back at him, and then quickly diverted her eyes to the floor.
“You are kind, sir, to praise my performance," she thanked him. "My name is Nelly.”
Straight away he liked the way her name felt on his lips as he mimed it when she looked away.
The dance ended and all the dancers hugged one another. It was their way of saying well done, it had been a good dance. Oliver took advantage of the gesture and immediately embraced the delightful woman before him. She offered no resistance to his move and felt so perfect in his arms. It seemed that she did not mind lingering a moment longer than necessary, as he held her tight.
“It was most refreshing to watch you enact Dorimene with such perfection. And the alternative ending was a delightful surprise for all,” he said, as he reluctantly let her go.
“I wanted something special for my debut, and so I rewrote the ending that I know everyone wanted to see,” she told him. As she spoke, she leaned into him at a close angle to make herself heard over the raucous behaviour of her fellow actors. “It was easy. All I did was play to their hearts.”
“Well, I wouldn’t say easy, I would describe it as brave,” he replied, enjoying having to lean into her ear so she could hear him. “We all love a tragedy.”
“That is true, and that's why it was for one night only,” she smiled back at him.
“Then I am so pleased that I didn't miss it. Otherwise, I would not have had the pleasure to witness a most creative performance,” he said. And he was thankful that he had attended that evening.
As he had been accepted into the circle of actors, he spent the rest of the evening in their company, and they soon became friends. He met her mother, the owner of the traveling theatre, though he did not let on who he was. Nelly had many close friends and family, and she was as delightful offstage as she was on it.
She meandered away from him to dance with other people she knew, but she never ventured far from her troupe. Her shyness surprised him somewhat, for her stage performance was so full of confidence. She was indeed a born actress. And it was a woman he felt drawn to, not only because of her talent, but she also stirred his heart in very strange ways.
He watched her in wonderment as she danced with others. It seemed to Oliver that everyone was a friend in her eyes, she was fond of them all. Sometimes she spoke with an outsider to her group, but always in the company of someone from the touring party. Many commoners wanted to speak with her, dance with her, and praise her, but he was the one that she kept returning to. Whenever she was away from him, he would hover close by, showing as much security as her own family did.
She had captured something inside of him, something that he had never felt stir before. Because she had accepted him, so too did the rest of the acting circle. This was a good opportunity to talk about life with a traveling theatre. Many had assumed him to be interested in such a life, perhaps even being an actor himself. Not once though did he give away who he was, other than his first name.
It was getting late into the night and the crowds were starting to thin out. After all, many of the revellers would need to rise at the crack of dawn, with a long, hard days graft ahead of them. Oliver took the opportunity to stay with Nelly longer, now that there were fewer distractions since the music had died down.
“May I ask you a question, Nelly?” he dared a different approach.
“Of course, Oliver, ask away,” she sang out, always speaking to him with a smile on her lips, that shone in her eyes too.
“Can I speak with you alone?” he continued, knowing that she might find his request unusual.
“Of course,” was all she said as she took his hand and led him inside to a quieter corner in the common room of the inn. Outside, they could barely hear each other’s words, and so Oliver was pleased at her idea to go indoors.
Though he had not expected the close touch of her hand, and it evoked a warm glow in his chest, as well as made his heart race. Although he knew that she meant nothing by holding his hand, for that was the way of many artists, nonetheless the feel of her soft skin was a moment of bliss. Her fingers felt so delicate in his own larger palm, and he dare not squeeze for fear of hurting the slender bones.
Is she showing me kindness because that is how she has been taught; or does she think me special, as I do of her? He did not know, but he followed her like a puppy dog because wherever she went, he wanted to be with her. Now that I have found this shining gem, I hope never to lose her. Whether she felt the same about him, he did not know, but he intended to find out, one way or another.
Although Nelly had never met Oliver before, she sensed that she could trust him, but she wasn’t sure why. Could it be his friendly demeanour? Or most likely his obvious love of the theatre. As a rule, it was not normal for her to dance with a stranger; so why am I doing so on this night?
It must be the fact that you are a handsome charming man, who has swept me off my feet. Or your long dark hair that is tied neatly in a braid at your back. Whatever it is, I find something attractive in you. Especially when you look at me with your warm, dark eyes. It gives me a rush of feelings that I cannot account for.
Besides, tonight she was allowed to let go and relax a little. The play had been a success, and her idea of an alternative ending had been very well received. Her mother had agreed to the changed ending to celebrate her first night in a leading role. And it had been met with rapturous applause from the audience. Even her mother congratulated her on her brilliant idea.
Winning over the audience was the desire of every actor, and the applause was the reward they all craved. Having the crowd shouting for an encore was one of the most satisfying moments of her acting life. It had put her in a good mood and could be why she had allowed this stranger into her life. Plus, the fact that he had flattered her with praise in such a charming way. Yes, that had something to do with it. He had a way with kind words.
“You see that colourful curtain over there, hanging on the wall,” she whispered into his ear. Nelly enjoyed leaning in so close to him that she could feel the warmth of his skin.
“You mean the one that the innkeeper came through?” he questioned, as he watched the innkeeper return to the bar.
“Yes, that’s the one,” she chuckled as she grabbed hold of his hand again and led him towards the rust-orange curtain that hung on the wall.
Once there, she moved the thick cloth to reveal an open space at the bottom of a dark, narrow stairway. Not letting go of his hand, she started to climb, encouraging him to follow her up the stairs. She liked the feel of her smaller hand in his large palm, it gave her a sense of protection and security. This man had made a strong impression on her, for she would never behave so impulsively with a man
"Come on, it leads to the roof,” she told him as she looked down the steps at him, urging him on with her mischievous stare.
“Should we be up here?” he asked, pulling on her hand to stop her midway. He feigned reluctance to follow, but the grin on his lips gave him away.
“Shh… I won’t tell if you won’t,” she said, putting her finger on his lips with her free hand.
The touch of his lips felt good, sending a quiver through her body, and she pulled her hand away almost immediately. He grabbed for the hand that had touched his lips and held it for a moment, as they both stared into one another's eyes.
“Keep going, we’re more likely to get caught if we hang around on this stairway,” she answered. Nelly felt a little thrill at his touch, and she continued to pull at his arm as they climbed the rest of the steps together.
Her heartbeat resounded in her ears at the very notion of her daring behaviour. Sneaking around alone with a man who she had never met before was not something she did every day, but it was proving to be thrilling. Especially being here with him…he made her feel confident. At the same time, he caused her stomach to flutter, and her mind to reel in with a pleasant confusion.
“See, no one is here,” she pointed out with a wave of her arms that encompassed the empty rooftop.
“Hmm, but should you be alone with a man you do not know?” Oliver asked the obvious question. “In my defence, I assure you that I am a gentleman and would never dishonour a delicate beauty such as yourself.”
Nelly smiled at his words and read the truth in his eye. As they climbed the stairs, she did keep wondering if she should be doing this, but she genuinely felt safe being alone with this man. She was struck by how he framed his words, almost as if they were playing a scene in a play. “Are you an actor, sir?”
“No,” was all he answered.
“Is this quiet enough for you to speak with me alone?” she asked, watching his silhouette move around in the semi-darkness.
He walked over to the edge of the roof, where there stood a waist-high wall. It had been built to protect those who came up here for refuge or solace. And it was the ideal place to gaze at the stars from such an advantageous point. She watched her new friend lean down and sit on the floor. He leaned his back against the wall and reached his arm up, inviting her to sit by his side.
For the next few moments, they both looked up into the deep, black void above their heads. The endless blackness was broken by thousands of tiny pinpoints from the starlight.
“This is nice,” he said, though he made no attempt to get closer to her, and she was happy with the small gap between them. In the back of her mind, she knew that what she did was wrong, yet it felt right.
“So, if you are not an actor, do you often watch plays?” she questioned him further, longing to find out more about this stranger who had made her feel so good.
“I do,” he replied in short as if he was teasing her by not talking much. Before she had the chance to ask yet another question, he spoke up, “I love the theatre and all that it encompasses. If I know there is a traveling theatre in town, I try not to miss any of their shows.”
“Then, you will have seen in the past, my mother playing the part that I played this very night?”
“Indeed, I have. I am familiar with your mother’s traveling troupe. Though I admit I do not recall seeing you on the stage before, which surprises me as I would not have missed your beauty,” he said, turning his head her way, even though it was difficult to see much in the darkness.
The moonlight shone on his face, as a cloud moved out of its way, and she could make out his handsome features. His thick brows sat over dark eyes and his cheekbones were prominent and strong.
“We have not been in this area for some time. When last we came here, I played the part of a horse,” she told him, chuckling under her hand at the memory. “The back end,” she added as she finally burst into a peal of loud laughter.
“I am sure it would have been a fine horse,” he chortled along with her. “But we all must start somewhere.”
“I have always been on the stage in some form or other. But tonight, you witnessed my true calling,” she told him because sharing her secrets with him felt good.
“Were you nervous?”
“Very. But my mother tells me that all actors should feel that way before a performance,” she shared. “It is what drives our performance. If one does not feel the fear of performing, then one will not do it well, and it is my dream to be the best.”
“I assure you that you did more than well,” he smiled, bowing his head as he leaned closer towards her. “You were born to be on a stage. After watching your performance tonight, I am sure of it.”
“You flatter me, sir,” she said shyly as she looked down at the floor between them.
“Tell me, Nelly, have you ever thought about performing in a real theatre house? Not that your traveling troupe is not real theatre. But I mean a theatre building, a place where you are sponsored by the nobility.”
Nelly hesitated before replying to his question because she felt he would not like her answer. “My parents have always taught me that street theatre is where the true art is at. They shun actors who perform in theatre houses, believing them too manifold to carry the true spirit of art in their veins.”
“I can tell you, as an avid theatre lover, that is not the case, though there is an element of truth in your words,” Oliver told her, nodding his head in agreement. “Is that what you believe in your heart?”
“I keep my thoughts hidden. In truth, it is another part of my dream,” she admitted with a look of surprise showing in her eyes, that she was telling Oliver her aspirations. “As a child, I snuck into theatre houses with my cousins, and even at such a young age I was in awe of the stunning glamor inside.”
“Do you think that one day you might consider acting in one?” Oliver asked, and she closed her eyes, half regretting admitting to such a dream.
“I could not rebel against those who love me," she replied with conviction. "It would make me feel like a traitor against my family.”
She could sense Oliver’s eyes watching her in the glimmering moonlight. She even felt comfortable with it because she liked being alone with this man. Nelly felt that to lie to him would not be fair, for he was so open with her. Sharing his enjoyment of her performance, and his obvious love of the theatre. He talked about grand plays acted out in huge theatre halls. Grand candelabras hanging from ornately decorated, golden ceilings, lighting up the halls. When she heard his tales, she felt a yearning to see it for herself, and even, heaven forbid, act there herself one day.
“And the audience, are they as passionate as the crowds we play for?”
“Now there you have me,” he said with a sad expression. “Of course, many are passionate about the play, but a theatre house is about more than that. It encompasses the entire setting of the play. The audience, the actors, and the extravagance of the building. Many are not even interested in the show.”
"Why would they go then, to watch a play they didn’t enjoy?"
“Ah, that is where you can sometimes notice the difference. The members of the audience are also part of the play,” he said.
“What? You mean audience participation?” she asked, confused. “How can so many people play a role in a stage play?”
“No, not quite on the stage. Those who visit the theatre are there to show off their class in a fine setting. That is the way of the wealthy. The stage is set for them to boast to one another, and the play itself takes second place” he explained.
For the next few hours, he admitted to her how he loved to watch plays in the theatre house too. He went on to explain how one of the servants in the big house got him tickets whenever he wanted them. And when he was there, he would observe all the people and watch the drama that played out in the crowds. He shared how the audience of wealthy clientele pranced around like peacocks. She laughed, and at the same time, it saddened her too.
"The stage performance should always play the central role in a night in a theatre, don't you agree?" she asked, quite serious in her conviction.
"Put it this way, the actors are all the lead roles. The audience plays the lesser roles, with the building itself as the entire stage," he said.
In between his tales, he asked her questions about her life. It seemed that their time together had been but a blur in a scene set upon a scene, as Nelly noticed the sky was turning brighter. Above them, the sky was no longer filled with stars. It had changed from darkness to the soft red glow of early dawn that was filled with grey clouds floating above them in silence.
Nelly stood up to stretch out her aching legs, and she turned to lean over the wall. Oliver did likewise, and as they gazed up to see the sunrise, someone shouted out her name. Looking down she spotted familiar faces looking up at her, and she waved to them.
“Do you know them, or are they annoying admirers who follow great performers around?” Oliver asked as if he wanted to protect her if it was needed. His concern caused her to smile.
“Ha, yes, they are annoying, but they are my cousins,” she laughed as she waved back at them. “I’m up here,” she called out, feeling a little saddened that the evening and the company of Oliver had come to an end.
“You know I have told you of my family, and you have told me of the big theatre houses, but I know nothing of you, Oliver,” she said to him. “We have shared an entire evening, but I still do not know who you are.”
She could see him hesitate as if contemplating what to say. But he hesitated too long as the door to the roof burst open, and her cousins joined them. The moment was gone, and she suddenly felt a distance growing between herself and Oliver.
“Ah, come here you lot, and meet Oliver. He’s a very wise man who seems to know everything there is to know about the life of an actor,” she said, sharing with them her newfound friendship.
They accepted her words, for it was enough, and they greeted Oliver with much enthusiasm and friendliness.
“It’s time to go and get some much-needed rest, before tonight’s performance, Nelly,” her cousin Jacob told her. “We had such a celebration at your success, that another day has sneaked upon us.”
“This is Jacob,” she said to Oliver, with a huge grin on her lips. “And we always do what he says, as he's the oldest and considers himself the wisest among us.”
“His words are wise,” Oliver acknowledged as he nodded his head in agreement with Jacob's remark. “A tired actor is no good to anyone, but a refreshed one will give their all.”
“Goodbye Oliver,” she said as she went to stand closer to him. Her cousins were already clambering back down the stairs to leave. “I don't know much about you, but I do hope to see you again.”
She did not wait for a reply. Instead, she turned towards the stairway. Before disappearing, she turned back again and waved to her handsome stranger, sharing a fond smile with him. Dashing down the stairway, and through the inn, she soon caught up with her cousins.
“Are you going to tell us anything about your new friend?” Matt, Jacob’s younger brother, asked her.
“He's someone who loved my performance. And a man who is very knowledgeable about the theatre,” she answered. Nelly did not want to share anything else, as the moment with Oliver had been private.
“Then he has good taste,” Tory said. “Daisy told us you had found a handsome admirer.”
“Then your sister needs to hold her tongue,” Nelly remarked, feigning anger. In truth, she was floating on a cloud. “We talked of theatre all night long, that’s all,” she replied, which was true, in part. But she failed to add how he had won over her heart.
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