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.
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Enjoy an Excerpt:
‘Poison,’ Stow mused. ‘A woman’s weapon, is it not?’ He turned, fixing his piggy-eyes upon Magdalen. “Tell me, why did you poison John Wood?’
Magdalen felt suddenly ice-cold, as if she had plunged into the Thames in January, as if every last gasp of air had been driven from her lungs. All around her, the players erupted in cries of outraged indignation.
‘I – I did not poison John!’ Magdalen stammered. ‘He is – he was, like a brother to me.’
‘You knew him well?’
‘Well enough, sir.’
‘You were intimately acquainted?’
‘No! I swear on my life!’
But the constable had the bit between his teeth. ‘Was it a lover’s quarrel? Did he spurn you for another? What do they say? Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned.’
Magdalen was sinking deeper into the icy water, the glimmers of daylight above her head becoming fainter as she drifted down into the darkness. The players’ protests were growing louder and angrier by the minute but they sounded very far away. The constable banged the tip of his staff upon the boards, once, twice, three times, dragging her back to the surface of her unfolding nightmare.
‘I will have silence!’ Edmund Stow bellowed. ‘Tell me, Mistress Bisset, as his sister then, who were his enemies? Who bore him a grudge?’
Magdalen thought of Richard Cowley’s brawl with John earlier that day, the hatred in his eyes. Did he hate John enough to kill him? But she had no proof, and she knew she would never forgive herself if she falsely accused him. ‘Everyone liked John, sir. He didn’t have any enemies.’
‘Everyone has enemies,’ Stow replied. ‘You came to London from Hampshire, did you not?’ he added, eyeing her appraisingly. ‘You were raised on a farm. You understand plants, which will heal, and which will harm?’
Magdalen dug her fingernails into her palms, focussing on the pain rather than the panic threatening to overwhelm her. ‘I left Hampshire when I was eight years old. I have no knowledge of such things, sir.’
‘Don’t lie to me.’
‘I swear I am innocent, sir.’
‘Believe me, girl, the truth will out.’ Edmund Stow glared at her for a long moment, perhaps hoping he might see into her very soul. She found herself staring back at him, held fast by his malevolent spell. When at last he released her from his gaze, her legs felt as wobbly as marrow jelly.
Stow’s eyes were sweeping across the stage, seeking a new target. They settled on Burbage and narrowed, taking aim. ‘It seems most likely John Wood was poisoned here at the Theatre.’
‘That is an outrageous accusation!’ Burbage shot back indignantly. ‘You cannot seriously believe one of us killed John?’
‘I believe whatever the evidence suggests, Master Burbage,’ Stow replied haughtily. ‘Tell me, what refreshments do you provide for the players?’
‘We have a pitcher of Malmsey in the ‘tiring house, and one cup.’ Burbage was visibly fighting to remain calm. ‘Before every performance, we share the cup and raise a toast. If someone had poisoned the wine, we would all be dead.’
‘Bring me the pitcher and the cup.’
Burbage glanced at Magdalen, but Stow shook his head. ‘No. She stays here. Send the boy.’
Peter soon returned with the pitcher and cup. Stow sniffed them both cautiously. ‘You have all drunk from this cup?’
The players nodded.
‘But you gave John a second drink, after the play had begun, didn’t you, Magdalen,’ Peter said brightly.
Stow’s beady eyes fixed upon Magdalen again. ‘Is this true?’
Magdalen opened her mouth but no words formed. Peter was right. She had offered John another drink, but only because he had looked so unwell. Will Kempe glared at Peter and rolled his eyes in disgust. Several other players shook their heads despairingly. Peter, suddenly comprehending the gravity of his careless words, fought back tears.
‘So, you do not deny giving the player another drink, Mistress Bisset?’ There was a gleam of triumph in the constable’s eye.
Penny Ingham 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.
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