Death Comes for Desdemona
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by Nina Coombs Pykare
Category: Romance/Historical Fiction
Description: Kate Ketterling is a member of her father's troupe of strolling players. When the actors come to Covent Garden she finds the theatre superior to their usual haunts--until Nell Stanford's dresser is strangled. The authorities take little interest before the hot-tempered Nell herself is killed. When Bow Street's progress is nonexistent, intrepid Kate and Viscount Barrington stage their own investigation. Regency Mystery/Romance by Nina Coombs Pykare; originally published by Five Star
eBook Publisher: Belgrave House, 1999
eBookwise Release Date: May 2010
7 Reader Ratings:
Available eBook Formats: OEBFF Format (IMP) [164 KB]
Reading time: 104-146 min.
If Papa hadn't insisted on coming to London that April, none of this would have happened. I wouldn't have met Archie and we wouldn't have found the dead--but I'm getting ahead of myself.
We came to London because Papa had made plans for us and we knew better than to argue with him. Papa was the head of our family and of our troupe of strolling players. Charles Ketterling, "The Great Tragedian," he billed himself, though much as I loved him, I knew he wasn't great; just a run-of-the-mill actor, somewhat the worse for too much gin. Papa was partial to gin--so much so that in theater circles he was known as "Blue Ruin Ketterling."
Mama, Esther Smithfield Ketterling, never touched a drop of liquor. Mama was the real center of our family, although big blustery Papa made a lot of noise. Small quiet Mama made things happen. Mama was not a great actress either, but she did well enough for our little troupe. And she kept the rest of us going.
Then there was me, Catherine Louise Ketterling, Kate--sort of a mixture of the two of them--brash, cheeky, sassy, impertinent. Papa called me all those and more. And he was right. My line of business on the stage was the hoyden and I was good at it, maybe because that was closest to the real me.
Anyway, when several important members of our traveling troupe left us early that spring, we were forced to disband. Papa wrote to Mr. Kemble because the two of them had once been strolling players together. Since then Mr. Kemble had come up in the world, not only acting, but managing Covent Garden Theater, and he agreed to give us employment. Papa told him that I could make people laugh and that in a breeches part I could draw a full house. Mr. Kemble might believe that's all Papa had in mind, but I knew better. I knew that Papa, strange as it seemed, meant to make me the greatest tragic actress London had ever seen.
"Motive," Papa always said. "Look for what's behind a character's actions. Know that and you know her." And so I was always wondering about a person's reason, his why.
Take Papa now. Papa said the Blue Ruin was the reason he wasn't rivaling Mr. Kemble as London's greatest tragic actor. "I got me a fondness for gin," he would say sadly to anyone who would listen. "Otherwise I'd be there in London, putting the great Kemble to shame."
Mama and I kept our tongues between our teeth, but we knew better. Though we never mentioned it to each other, we knew that Papa was a mediocre actor and that his partiality for gin was not the cause of his mediocrity, but the effect of it.
Anyway, we were in London and I had good acting work. Mama sewed costumes and Papa hung around the theater, interfering wherever he could, and probably driving poor Mr. Kemble mad.
I was pleased to get to see the great Sarah Siddons play Lady Macbeth. I knew why Papa wanted me to play tragic parts. The biggest rewards, the most fame, went to those who did tragedy. But I also knew that tragedy was not for me. And no amount of watching another actress, or studying her dramatic ways, would change that.
We hadn't seen much of the city except right around the theater, and there it was dirty, infested with pickpockets and beggars and worse, but we were real pleased with the theater, a fancy place, all gilt and velvet, much better than the barns and inns we played in the provinces.
I performed well and Mr. Kemble told Papa he was pleased. Then one day, a little more than two weeks after our arrival, Mr. Kemble announced that Mrs. Siddons would be unable to perform as Desdemona in Othello. She had taken ill and Nell Stanford would take over the part instead. Papa glowered at hearing of Nell's good fortune, but I could only be glad the part hadn't fallen to me. Even with a dark wig hiding my red curls and heavy make-up on my freckled face, I couldn't begin to look suitably tragic.
No one in the company much liked Nell. She had good looks and the long dark hair and voluptuous figure that many men seem to favor. Her looks were great, even I said that, though not without a little envy. But her character was something else. During rehearsal she was often downright nasty to the other actors, and she treated her dresser Betty like dirt.
My dressing room was next to Nell's, and that afternoon, after she found she was to play Desdemona, I heard a terrible commotion next door, screaming and cursing and things crashing against the wall. Then poor Betty rushed out with a big cut on her forehead.
I took Betty into my room and cleaned the cut. Her eyes rolled and she hiccupped, holding back her sobs.
"Does it hurt much?" I asked anxiously.
She shook her head. "No, miss. 'Tain't that. It's the mistress. She'll be that angered with me fer running out."
"Nonsense," I declared, my opinion of Nell sinking even lower. "She can't expect you to stand there while she throws things at you."
Betty looked surprised, her round face screwed up in a puzzled frown. "But she do, miss. And I don't want to lose me place. I got a mother in Fleet Street what needs me and I'm the only one as can--"
"If Nell dismisses you," I said indignantly, "you come right to me. I'll hire you."
I shouldn't have said such a thing, of course. I had very little in the way of funds of my own. Even though I was nineteen, Papa, as head of the family, collected my wages and gave me what he thought I needed. Mama always said I had this bad habit of acting on impulse first and regretting it later. But I knew I could talk Papa into hiring Betty if I had to.
"That's most kind of you, miss," Betty said gratefully. "If I could only find that paper she's a-worrying over. She's always putting things away and then blaming me if I can't find 'em."
That sounded like Nell, all right. Even in the short time I'd been there I'd seen how she thought. Anything that went wrong was always someone else's fault, never Nell's.
I had Betty's cut cleaned and the flow of blood stopped. "You'll find it, I'm sure," I said, patting her arm. "Just remember, I'm here and I'm your friend."
"Thank 'ee, miss. Yer most kind," and she hurried out.
I had no role in Othello, but I often stood in the wings to watch Mrs. Siddons at work. One night I went out to watch Nell Stanford. Of course, Othello had the best part. Mr. Kemble was in fine fettle as the Moor, declaiming in that rich deep voice of his. I thought his gestures a little over dramatic, but I knew Papa would approve.
Nell's Desdemona, though, was definitely watery. I'd never cared much for the part of Desdemona. It didn't help me to try to understand her either--to try to imagine what was behind her actions. I certainly wouldn't submit meekly to being smothered and then before I died try to absolve the scoundrel who did it! It's a man's world, of course, and I knew it, but I didn't have to like it.
The part of Emilia, Desdemona's friend and lady in waiting, was more to my liking. She wasn't afraid to stand up to Othello. But I wouldn't be playing her either. Lavinia Patrick, the company's female heavy, had dibs on it.
I liked Lavinia, She had the looks to play the villainess, but in spite of her large body and fierce visage, she had the tenderest of hearts. I'd seen her several times giving coins to the young boys who called the actors to the stage. When I joined the company, Lavinia had been the one to welcome me, to show me around the theater, while the spiteful Nell pretended I didn't exist.
A hand descending on my shoulder made me jump. "Evening there, Kate."
I eased out from under Peter Rutherford's large sweaty hand. "Evening, Peter." Peter had already tried to make a liaison with me and been quite definitely refused. He couldn't seem to take no for an answer. "No" was all he'd get from me, however, because he was also rude, and far too free with his hands for the taste of any virtuous, or even discriminating, woman.
When the play was over, those of us not in the afterpiece were standing around in the greenroom discussing the performance when suddenly screams rang out. There was a mad scramble to get out the door and everyone hurried off toward the sound.
Nell Stanford came careening down the hall, screaming and blubbering, her face six different shades of red. Papa tried to get her to stop long enough to tell him what was wrong, but she didn't make a bit of sense. She just kept pointing back down the hall toward her dressing room and blubbering. I left Papa and the others clustered around her and followed Mr. Kemble down the hall.
I got to Nell's door just behind him. "My God!" he exclaimed, crossing the room and dropping to one knee.
The crumpled form on the floor was wearing the cloak Nell used in the first act as Desdemona, but I could see the cut on her forehead. Betty. My stomach jumped up into my mouth and my knees quit holding me up.
I sank down beside Mr. Kemble. "Is she--"
"She's dead," he said, his great voice sadly muted. "Strangled." He touched the cloak. "Who could have done such a thing?"
My first thought was Nell Stanford, but much as I disliked the hot-tempered Nell, I couldn't see her strangling anyone. She was more apt to hit them over the head with the nearest object. Besides, why would she wreck her own dressing room? The place was in chaos--torn playbills and rumpled costumes scattered everywhere. Powder had been spilled on the dressing table and a bottle of cheap perfume lay on its side leaking a heavy sickening fragrance.
"We'll have to send for the Bow Street Runners," Mr. Kemble said, frowning. "Poor creature." He turned to me. "Find something to cover her with, will you, Kate?" And out he went, leaving me with the dead body.
I got to my feet, somewhat shaky but standing up at least, and looked around. A pink cashmere shawl lay in a heap under the clothes pegs and I spread it carefully over poor Betty. Now what would happen to the mother she'd been so worried about?
Then, my legs still shaky, I made my way to the door and leaned heavily against the frame. Death was no stranger to any of us, but to die like that, so brutally.
And who would want to kill a poor dresser like Betty, a girl with nothing to steal, nothing to--
"I say, you look a bit pale. May I be of assistance?"
The speaker was a slight young man, elegantly dressed in the usual evening black. His fair hair wanted to stick up in all directions but his gray eyes regarded me warmly.
"I--" I tried to think. "There's been a murder and--"
"How awful for you," he said amiably. "Must make the knees a bit wobbly. Here, take my arm."
I stared at him, not moving. I wanted to be alone, perhaps to be sick to my stomach.
"Oh, yes," he said. "Forgot you don't know me. Name's Archie, Archibald Islington, Viscount Barrington, at your service."
I still didn't move.
"I was coming backstage to look for you," he said, unhooking my stiff fingers from the doorframe and pulling my arm through his, "and I heard the screaming."
My head was still whirling and my stomach still roiling otherwise I wouldn't have accepted the support of his arm.
He smiled at me warmly. "I have wanted to make your acquaintance since I first saw you last week." He smiled, his pale little moustache lifting at one corner.
"I didn't intend to do it under such distressing circumstances, however." He glanced into the room. "Poor thing. How dreadful."
I nodded. My strength was gradually coming back. I tried to ease my arm out of his, but his grasp was firm.
"Let me take you to the greenroom," he said, "where you can sit down."
And that's how I met Archie.
The Bow Street Runners assembled us all in the greenroom. Lavinia looked red-eyed, Nell sick, and Peter pale. The rest of the troupe didn't look much better, huddled together in their red velvet chairs, hardly able to take in what had happened.
I knew investigating crimes was just business to them, but I couldn't believe how indifferent, how hardened, the Bow Street Runners acted.
"A servant girl," Constable Kennedy said, as though that made Betty's murder less terrible. "Playin' at bein' her mistress. Probably kilt by some cracksman as thought he'd pick up a few pounds. Sneaked back here whilst the play was on." He turned to Nell who sat sniffling into a lace handkerchief. "Ye missin' anythin' valuable, miss?"
Nell shook her head. "It's hard to tell in such a mess but I don't think so. My jewels are all paste anyway."
The constable frowned. "Mayhap the thief didn't know that. It's robbery, I'm thinkin'. 'E didn't find nothin' and when the girl comes in on 'im, 'e panics and stops her mouth. 'E's well away now. Lotta people comes and go here. We'll likely never find 'im."
Next to me Archie snorted and quickly turned it into a cough, but he didn't fool me. He was as disgusted as I was with their callous attitude.
After a few more questions, the constable seemed satisfied and the Runners went off. Archie offered me his arm. "Allow me to escort you to your dressing room."
I was going to refuse, but just then Peter got up and started toward me. I didn't want him to go with me, and the prospect of going into my dressing room alone with Betty's poor body lying next door--and the murderer who knows where--didn't appeal to me, either. "Thank you," I said.
Archie looked all around my dressing room, even behind the changing screen and under the clothes on the pegs where no one could reasonably hope to go undetected. "No one here," he said cheerfully.
I realized later that cheerfulness was one of Archie's enduring--and endearing--qualities. It was part of the way he looked at life. And his cheerfulness was most welcome to me right then.
"Perhaps after you've changed, you'd care for a little supper," Archie said, running a hand through his already unruly hair.
"I--" Papa didn't approve of little suppers or the dalliances that often followed them. Papa had some rather rigid ideas about me saving myself for my art.
Archie moved a little closer. "You're very lovely," he said. "Prettiest thing I've ever seen."
I laughed. I couldn't help it. Imagine someone thinking I was that pretty--bright red hair, freckles, and slight of build. "All right," I said. "I'll go to supper with you but not because I believe that Banbury tale!"
Archie chuckled and put a hand dramatically on his waistcoat. "You have dealt me a mortal blow! A wound to the very heart!"
I went behind the screen to change my gown. "If I were you, milord--"
"Archie," he cried. "I insist. You must call me Archie!"
"Very well." I laughed again. "If I were you, Archie, I'd never try to make a career upon the stage. You're a dreadful actor."
"I know," he said, "but I played this part well. I made you feel better."
And to my surprise I realized he had.