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The Heavenly Charmers
by Penny Ingham
1592. The Theatre, London.
When a player is murdered, suspicion falls on the wardrobe mistress, Magdalen Bisset, because everyone knows poison is a woman’s weapon. The coroner is convinced of her guilt. The scandal-pamphlets demonize her.
Magdalen is innocent, although few are willing to help her prove it. Only handsome Matthew Hilliard offers his assistance, but dare she trust him when nothing about him rings true?
With just two weeks until the inquest, Magdalen ignores anonymous threats to ‘leave it be’, and delves into the dangerous underworld of a city seething with religious and racial tension. As time runs out, she must risk everything in her search for the true killer - for all other roads lead to the gallows.
Adam Cooper’s expression shifted from righteous fury to wide-eyed surprise. His mouth began to move wordlessly like a floundering fish, and suddenly he was on the move, ramming into her shoulder with such force as he fled that the remaining bills flew from her hand and fluttered to the ground. Magdalen watched the clergyman until he disappeared into the crowds on Three Needle Street. What had caused him to flee so hastily? Was it something she had said? Why was she always so rash? Why did she always utter the first thing that came into her head? If the Puritan chose to report her to the constable, she would be whipped through the streets as a scold.
Without Adam Cooper to incite their disapproval, the crowd was beginning to drift away. No-one offered to help her pick up the playbills, even though she knew many of them would be in the audience for Twelfth Night that afternoon. Damn them. They were all as hypocritical as Adam Cooper.
‘Madam? Can I be of assistance?’
Magdalen felt a hand at her elbow and turned sharply. She didn’t recognise the man at her side. On her guard, she retreated a pace and looked him up and down. His deep blue doublet gleamed with the distinctive sheen of satin. His thigh boots were crafted from soft, luxurious, cordwain leather, turned over to the knee. Fine apparel, and a rapier at his belt. He was high born, a gentleman. And strikingly handsome too, with jet black hair framing a long straight nose and strong, angular jawline. Almost six feet tall, he had a soldier’s build; broad shoulders tapering to a slim waist, and strong muscular legs. His mouth was curving into a hint of a smile, and she wondered what amused him. A thought struck her. Had he watched her humiliation and found entertainment in it?
‘No thank you, sir,’ she replied curtly, and bent down to retrieve the bills.
‘Here, let me.’
To her astonishment, the stranger crouched down beside her and began to help, carefully wiping each bill on his cloak. It smeared the filth and made the damage worse, but she could not deny it was a thoughtful gesture. They gathered the bills, then stood up in unison.
‘Thank you.’ She held out her hand to take his share, but he kept hold of them.
‘Would you do me the honour of telling me your name?’
Their eyes met and, unexpectedly, she felt her breathing quicken. ‘My name is Mistress Magdalen Bisset.’
‘I am honoured to make your acquaintance, Mistress Bisset.’
Magdalen couldn’t understand the effect he was having upon her. She spent her days surrounded by handsome players, and he was no fairer of face. Unnerved, her tone was sharper than she had intended.
‘And might I ask who you are, sir?’
He doffed his hat and bowed, a flamboyant, courtly gesture, all sweeping hands and swinging cloak. ‘Matthew Hilliard, at your service.’
Magdalen’s outward composure gave no hint of her inner confusion. She tried to tell herself she was not impressed by his gallantry. Will’s plays often portrayed the world of courts and kings. She saw displays of chivalry upon Burbage’s stage every day. She tried to tell herself she had met the likes of Matthew Hilliard before, over-confident young bucks at the ‘tiring house door who wrongly assumed she was the players’ whore. She had given those men short-shrift, sending them on their way with a look cold enough to freeze Hell twice over. Surely Matthew Hilliard was no different from the rest? But none of them had ever made her heart race or her skin burn as if she was standing too close to the fire.
Flustered, she said, ‘Thank you for your assistance, sir, but I must take my leave.’
She turned back warily. ‘Yes?’
‘Do you truly work at the Theatre?’
So, he had been in the crowd. He had witnessed her humiliation, and done nothing to bring it to an end. Like the rest, he had enjoyed the spectacle.
Penny has a degree in Classics, and a passion for archaeology – during the summer months, you will often find her on her a ‘dig’ with a trowel in her hand. She has had a variety of jobs over the years, including ice-cream seller, theatre PR, BBC local radio, and TV critic for a British Forces newspaper.
She has written four novels – The King’s Daughter is the story of Aethelflaed, Lady of the Mercians. The Saxon Wolves and The Saxon Plague are set in the turbulent aftermath of Roman Britain. Her inspiration for Twelve Nights grew from her love of the theatre in general, and Shakespeare in particular.
Penny has two grown up children and lives with her husband in Hampshire.