death at the beggars opera

Table of Contents

Also by Deryn Lake

Title Page



Chapter One

Chapter Two

Chapter Three

Chapter Four

Chapter Five

Chapter Six

Chapter Seven

Chapter Eight

Chapter Nine

Chapter Ten

Chapter Eleven

Chapter Twelve

Chapter Thirteen

Chapter Fourteen

Chapter Fifteen

Chapter Sixteen

Chapter Seventeen

Chapter Eighteen

Chapter Nineteen

Chapter Twenty

Chapter Twenty-One

Chapter Twenty-Two

Chapter Twenty-Three

Chapter Twenty-Four

Chapter Twenty-Five

Chapter Twenty-Six

Historical Note

By Deryn Lake

The John Rawlings Mysteries















A John Rawlings Mystery
Deryn Lake

This ebook is copyright material and must not be copied, reproduced, transferred, distributed, leased, licensed or publicly performed or used in any way except as specifically permitted in writing by the publishers, as allowed under the terms and conditions under which it was purchased or as strictly permitted by applicable copyright law. Any unauthorised distribution or use of this text may be a direct infringement of the author’s and publisher’s rights and those responsible may be liable in law accordingly.

First published in Great Britain by

Hodder and Stoughton 1995

eBook edition first published in 2013 by Severn House Digital

an imprint of Severn House Publishers Ltd.

Copyright © 1995 Deryn Lake

The right of Deryn Lake to be identified as the author of this work has been asserted in accordance with the Copyright, Designs & Patents Act 1988.

A CIP catalogue record for this title is available from the British Library.

ISBN-13: 978-1-4483-0077-8 (ePub)

Except where actual historical events and characters are being described for the storyline of this novel, all situations in this publication are fictitious and any resemblance to living persons is purely coincidental.

This eBook produced by

Palimpsest Book Production Limited,

Falkirk, Stirlingshire, Scotland.

In memory of

Shirley Russell,

friend and agent,

who once lived down Drury Lane.

Chapter One

It being an inclement day, plagued by needle-sharp rain and whipping winds, John Rawlings, after first safely locking up his shop in Shug Lane, hurried home beneath the protection of an umbrella, that useful invention from the Orient considered by many as too effeminate for a man to carry. Jumping between the puddles and avoiding the gutters, awash with indescribable and unspeakable items, John none the less considered that much as he disliked the prevailing conditions they had brought about some excellent business. As downpour after downpour had descended upon London, so had the door of his apothecary’s shop swung open, a bell attached above it ringing a warning that someone was present. And though most of this flurry of custom had come in simply to gain shelter, all had gone out holding a package of some kind; a bottle of perfume, some tablets for the gout, a cure for the clap, some carmine for a lady’s lips. Reflecting on the truth of the proverb ‘’Tis an ill wind that blows nobody any good’, John Rawlings hastened through the rain towards his home in Nassau Street in the parish of St Ann’s, Soho.

The time being shortly after four o’clock on that raw autumn afternoon, the candles of number two had already been lit, and as John turned the corner of Gerrard Street and saw the welcoming glow, he ran the last short distance to his front door. Hurrying up the steps, he closed the unfashionable umbrella, handing it to the footman who answered his knock, then bounded into the hall with one of his characteristic hare-like movements.

‘John?’ called a voice from the library, and only stopping to remove his dripping broadcloth coat, the Apothecary went to join his father.

This night Sir Gabriel Kent, who had adopted John Rawlings when the child had been but three years old, and was therefore a father to him in every sense but the actual, sat resplendent in a high-backed chair before a gleaming wood fire. Casually dressed, for he obviously did not intend to go forth on so foul an evening, Sir Gabriel was still wearing the black satin suit, heavily laced with silver decoration, in which he had dined. However, he had removed his high storeyed wig, an old-fashioned affair more reminiscent of the reign of the Stuarts than that of the Hanoverians, and had on his closely cropped head a black turban of particularly fine quality. As it was Sir Gabriel’s habit to affect black and white during daylight hours, black and silver for evenings and festivities, the only ornament in this striking headpiece was a silver brooch bearing a Siberian zircon, which glittered in the candlelight like a pool of iridescent water. Looking up from his book as his son entered, Sir Gabriel smiled and motioned to the chair opposite his, pouring a glass of pale sherry as he did so.

‘You’re home early, my dear,’ he said.

John took the offered glass from his father’s long fingers. ‘I’m going to the theatre with Serafina and Louis, had you forgotten? She has asked me to dine with them first, so I was obliged to close the shop promptly.’

‘Did you do good trade today?’

‘Very. The world and his wife, to say nothing of a few lovers, came in to avoid the rain and not one of them left without buying something.’

‘Were you called out at all?’

‘Only to attend a rakehell who had indulged too well. He lay festering in a darkened room wishing to die.’

Sir Gabriel laughed drily. ‘And what did you prescribe?’

‘I gave him a dose of salts fair set to glue him to his privy pan.’

‘Lud, how the world goes on!’ exclaimed John’s father, and laughed once more. ‘Now, to speak of more pleasant things. What is it you are going to see tonight? Pray remind me.’

‘A new production of
The Beggar’s Opera,
complete with special scenic effects, and mounted at Drury Lane no less.’

Sir Gabriel closed his eyes. ‘Ah, that sweet theatre! How many happy memories I have of it. Why, it was the very first place of entertainment into which your mother ever stepped. We saw
The Way of the World
and she remarked afterwards how very disagreeable all the characters seemed.’

‘A strange comment from one who once had to exist on the streets of London.’

John’s father sighed reflectively. ‘Despite her terrible struggles, Phyllida maintained a freshness and directness of manner which was most endearing. You have inherited something of that characteristic.’

The Apothecary smiled naughtily, half of his mouth curving upwards in what could only be described as a crooked grin. ‘Except when I am forced to dissemble, that is.’

‘That apart,’ answered Sir Gabriel with a twinkle in his eye, and put the tips of his fingers together.

It was almost with reluctance that John Rawlings left the library, some fifteen minutes later, and made his way upstairs to change for the evening’s entertainment. Anxious though he was to meet his friends and go out with them, he never tired of his father’s company nor, indeed, of conversing with the handsome older man, whose golden eyes were so full of wit and intelligence and whose keen brain had not been dulled one whit by the passing of the years.

As he put on his twilight clothes, John considered that of all his weaknesses his love of fashion was paramount. Indeed, had he had any other calling he would have dressed flamboyantly at all times. But the fact was that by day he must adopt sober black, for an apothecary not only made up prescriptions for doctors and surgeons but was also called upon to give medical advice and attend the sick in their homes, and for this reason could in no manner appear dandified. Therefore, at night the young man glittered like a bird of paradise by way of compensation. And this evening, knowing that he was to be in company with the exotic Serafina and her handsome French husband, John chose a suit of mulberry satin trimmed with gold, his waistcoat a riot of golden flowers and sparkling radiants.

‘Very fine,’ commented Sir Gabriel as his son came to bid him good night.

‘Too much for Drury Lane?’

‘Not at all. Did you not say Louis intends to have a stage box?’


‘Then you will be as closely observed as the performers. Now send one of the footmen to call you a chair. You must not get so much as a drop of rain on such choice apparel. And you are most certainly not to take that terrible umbrella of yours. It would ruin the entire effect.’

John burst out laughing. ‘Why are you so prejudiced against it? It is a very sensible piece of equipment.’

‘Fit for nothing but to keep the sun off dusky maidens and Eastern potentates. You would never see me abroad with such a thing.’

The Apothecary kissed him on the cheek. ‘You would rather get soaked I suppose. Though, on second thoughts, I doubt the rain would have the temerity to fall on you.’

And with that he made a hasty exit into the small but elegant hall of number two, Nassau Street, where he put on his cloak, before stepping outside and into the waiting sedan chair.

It was a dismal night, dark and chilly, and after a few seconds of peering out of the chair’s window, John pulled the curtain across it and contented himself with thinking about the evening ahead, cheerfully contemplating the prospect of good company, an excellent repast and a fine theatrical performance. However, it was at that moment, just as he thought of Drury Lane, that the Apothecary felt a faint thrill of unease, which he instantly thrust aside. And yet, ignore this feeling as he might, it cast a shadow over him and he was glad when the chair was set down outside the gracious entrance to number twelve, Hanover Square, the home of the Comte Louis de Vignolles and his entrancing wife, Serafina.

They were waiting for him in the first floor drawing room, a beautiful couple in such harmonious surroundings that John felt a catch in his throat. Once they had been at war with one another, these two people, and it had been partly through his intervention that they had come together again. So it was with extra warmth that he kissed Serafina’s hand and made his formal bow to the Comte.

‘My dear John,’ said the Comtesse, embracing him fondly, ‘we are so very pleased to see you. What a delight this evening is going to be, with all of us old friends together once more.’

Again, unbidden, came the feeling of disquiet, something of which must have shown on the Apothecary’s face, for the Comtesse continued, ‘You seem anxious. What is the matter?’

John shook his head. ‘Nothing, I assure you. Nobody could be looking forward to the occasion more than I.’ And he squeezed her hands to emphasise the point.

A few months previously, in the summer of 1754, he had believed himself in love with her. Now he had come to his senses and simply rejoiced in the warmth of Serafina’s friendship, a far more comfortable relationship all round. None the less, this did not prohibit him from appreciating her beautiful bone structure and supple physique. Indeed, the first time he had ever seen her, John had thought of the Comtesse as a delicate racehorse of a female and his opinion had not changed during the period of their acquaintanceship.

Kissing her hand once more, the Apothecary said, ‘You are in fine beauty tonight, Madam. So is it your intention to conceal your face with a mask?’

Serafina touched her husband lightly on the arm. ‘Louis likes me to do so, in fact it amuses him enormously. Anyway, it is considered
de rigeur
at the theatre these days.’

‘A fashion started by yourself, no doubt.’

The Comtesse shrugged elegantly. ‘Perhaps.’

‘I’m certain of it,’ her husband put in. ‘Now, John, a glass of champagne?’ And he motioned a hovering footman to pour.

It was at that moment that there was a knock on the front door, which opened once more. The sound of another arrival could be heard in the hall below and John knew by the very stamp of the feet and exclamations about the inclemency of the night that his old friend Samuel Swann had come to join the party. The heavy running footsteps on the curving staircase confirmed this belief, and a second or so later the great windmill of a young man burst into the room and heartily pumped the Comtesse’s hand.

‘Delighted to see you again, Ma’am. And you too, Sir. What an excellent notion of yours to meet like this. John, my dear fellow, how are you? It’s been an age.’ And he clapped the Apothecary on the shoulder with an embrace that rocked him on his feet.

‘Leading a somewhat quieter life than when I last saw you,’ said John, readjusting his coat, which had slipped down his back at the enthusiasm of Samuel’s greeting.

‘I should hope so indeed. But for all that it was an exciting summer, wasn’t it?’

‘A little too exciting,’ answered Louis, with feeling. He slipped his arm round his wife’s waist. ‘Would you agree, my dear?’

She shook her head. ‘There can be no such thing. I love playing dangerous games.’

‘As we all know only too well. Now, Serafina, come back to earth and lead the gentlemen in to dinner.’

The Comtesse smiled at her husband. ‘I can certainly obey one of your commands, but as to the other …’

Louis shook his head. ‘I know. We shall have to wait and see.’

Much to the annoyance of the
beau monde
, the King’s Theatre in the Haymarket had recently announced its intention of opening at half past seven, an hour considered very late and uncivilised and generally unacceptable. Covent Garden and Drury Lane, however, were still in favour with polite society for starting their performances at seven o’clock. It being the done thing to view the audience just as much as the play, the secret of a successful evening was to send a footman on ahead in order to obtain a box upon the stage. From this much sought after vantage point one could clearly see everyone else present and at the same time have a close-up view of the actors. Furthermore, the eyes of the rest of the world were, quite naturally, drawn to those who sat, as it were, behind the scenes, and it was a splendid opportunity to show off one’s latest gown and jewellery. There were even those so vulgar as to allow their servants to remain in the box throughout the first two acts, before finally entering during the interval to display themselves and enact the pantomime of waving at and making curtseys to all their acquaintances, all the while talking and laughing at the very tops of their voices.

John had, in the period of one intermission, observed a beau cover and uncover his head twenty times, then wind his watch, set it, check it, take snuff so that his diamond ring would flash upon his finger, sneeze violently, dangle his cane and fiddle with his sword knot, all in fifteen minutes flat. Louis de Vignolles, however, was a man of sterner stuff and had only secured such a desirable position in order to exhibit his beautiful and somewhat notorious wife.

There were fourteen of these stage loges at Drury Lane theatre, arranged in two rows on either side of the stage. The rows nearer to the audience contained four boxes, the others three, with a high peephole above for those unafraid of heights. And it was to the bottom box on the left-hand side that the Comte, having paid five shillings for the privilege, led his dinner guests, sending the footman who had secured it for them up to the gallery to join his peers. In common with all the boxes, entry to the stage loges was obtained via a door at the back, through which the group now passed. This despite the fact that the parapet separating its occupants from the stage was so low as to allow the ill-mannered to step straight over, a custom much indulged in by young bloods. To the relief of Louis’s party, each of them obtained a place on a little chair, there being only four present, so no one was forced to stand behind, a most uncomfortable proceeding. Drawing his seat close to the front, John looked around him.

Even though it was still ten minutes before seven, the theatre was already packed, the boxes, stage and otherwise, all being spoken for either by audience or servants. Most of the neighbouring loges, the Apothecary noted with dry amusement, were filled by ladies, obviously there to see Mr Jasper Harcross, without doubt one of the most handsome men alive, and tonight playing the part of Captain Macheath. In the front rows of the pit sat the critics, for this was a new production and as such would be written about in the newspapers. Behind them were congregated the true theatre lovers; merchants of rising eminence, barristers and students of the Inns of Court, mostly well read in plays, whose judgement was in general worth attending to. In the lower two galleries, for which an entry fee of a shilling and two shillings was charged, sat the middle classes in ascending order of status. While the top gallery itself was packed with servants and those of a similar stamp, who rained half eaten oranges and apples below and indulged in a fearsome volley of cat calls. As ever, John was amused to see that the Tories sat to the right of the theatre and the Whigs to the left, and felt that he could well hazard a guess as to the political leanings of Comte Louis de Vignolles.

‘I do believe I am being observed,’ said Serafina, close to his ear, breaking his train of thought.

‘There is certainly a bevy of quizzing glasses turned in your direction,’ the Apothecary answered, taking a quick look.

‘Yet I am no longer the mysterious Masked Lady I was when first you met me. Everyone knows my identity now.’

‘Ah, but you created a legend, Madam. The woman who took on the finest card and dice players in London and beat them at any game they chose to mention. Your fierce reputation will never leave you.’

And momentarily John left behind him the buzz and excitement of the theatre and flashed into his vivid memory a picture of Serafina de Vignolles, when he had not even known her identity, seated in one of the great gaming rooms at Marybone, throwing dice with Sir Gabriel Kent. Every man in the place had been staring at her, some with hatred, some with envy, but mostly with pure, unbridled admiration. She had been one of the most exciting and arresting women John had ever encountered.

‘Have I grown boring?’ asked Serafina, as if she could read his mind.

‘You could never do that,’ the Apothecary whispered truthfully, and kissed her hand.

‘Well, well,’ said Samuel loudly, breaking in on their shared moment, ‘look at this! The part of Polly Peachum is being taken by Miss Coralie Clive.’

‘Is it?’ John exclaimed, and took the programme from his friend’s outstretched hand. There, sure enough, were written the words, WOMEN: Mrs Peachum – Mrs Martin, Polly Peachum – Miss C. Clive, Lucy Lockit – Mrs Delaney, together with a long list of other names.

John’s curved smile appeared as he remembered the occasion when his path and that of the actress had crossed so dramatically. ‘It will be nice to see her again,’ he said.

There was a spatter of applause, and turning towards the audience the Apothecary saw that the orchestra was making its way in, led by the harpsichord player, a Mr Martin, according to the programme.

‘Any relation to Mrs Peachum?’ Louis asked his wife, but she shrugged her shoulders that she did not know. And as neither John nor Samuel could give an answer they fell silent as the overture began.

It was a spirited rendering of a rather long piece of music, during which the bulk of the audience conversed with or stared at one another. A masked woman, making a grand and late entrance in the loge immediately opposite, not only hit her footman with her fan but loudly called out to a blood sitting two boxes away, regardless of the fact that the musicians were giving it their all. This intensely annoyed Louis who got to his feet and told her to be quiet in no uncertain terms and a very Gallic manner. The blood took exception to such behaviour and was only restrained from jumping down onto the stage and drawing his sword by a friend slightly less drunk than he was. In view of all this it was a great relief when the curtains were finally drawn back and the performance began.

The Beggar’s Opera
was already a long established favourite with the audience, having been first performed at the Theatre Royal, Lincolns Inn Fields, in 1728. Conceived by the great John Gay, the work consisted of well known folk tunes with new and pithy words set to their familiar airs. Going one step further, Gay had presented his immortal comedy as a pastiche of the Italian opera styles and traditions of the day. Yet, popular though it immediately was, with its cast of thieves, whores, villains and rogues, led by the dashing highwayman Macheath, simultaneously trifling with the affections of two women, there were many who had raised their voices in criticism. The work was considered immoral for its glorification of the criminal, to say nothing of its political innuendoes. But none of these comments had affected the show’s acclaim amongst theatre goers. And now the great David Garrick himself was mounting this new and exciting production at Drury Lane.

John, who had not seen the work since he was fifteen, found himself in that happy state of remembering much, yet still being delighted by the freshness and bite of the dialogue, to say nothing of the wicked wit of the songs. In company with the rest of the house, he laughed till he wept when Mr and Mrs Peachum, wonderfully well played by two extremely rotund people with splendid voices, flew into a passion to hear that their daughter Polly had actually married Macheath, rather than becoming his mistress. No wonder, he thought, that the opera is disapproved of when such unconventional sentiments are so volubly expressed.

‘Our Polly is a sad slut! Nor heeds what we have taught her.

I wonder any man alive will ever rear a daughter!

For she must have both hoods and gowns, and hoops to swell her pride,

With scarves and stays, and gloves and lace;

and she will have men beside,’

sang the large Mrs Martin, rolling her comely and expressive eyes at the audience, who guffawed all the more. And with that both actors set about their stage daughter, played by the gorgeous Coralie Clive, looking so appealing in her costume that John found himself leaning forward on the parapet to get a better view.

‘I’d swear she’s grown better looking,’ whispered Samuel enthusiastically.

And John, raising his quizzing glass, as was every true male in the house, could only agree with him. For Miss Clive’s hair, dark and lustrous as midnight, glowed beneath her pretty white lace pinner. While the colour of her sparkling green eyes, something that John had remembered very clearly, was enhanced and beautified further by her ice blue costume.

‘Your mouth is open,’ murmured Serafina, with a smile in her voice.

‘Er, yes,’ answered John, and closed it.

Yet lovely though Coralie was, and however warm the audience’s reaction to her, it was as nothing compared to the moment when Captain Macheath bounded on to the stage singing the words, ‘Pretty Polly say, when I was away, did your fancy never stray, to some newer lover?’

It seemed to John that every woman in the theatre simultaneously stood up and cheered, for never had he heard such a rapturous greeting, so many sighs and moans and shouts, as when the handsome Jasper Harcross strode across the planking of the stage and posed for a moment, quite still, in the fullness of the lights. And this regardless of the fact that he was in the middle of his duet with Miss Clive, who took the situation very tolerantly, the Apothecary thought, and merely smiled at her fellow actor indulgently.

‘The man’s a posturing ass,’ commented the Comte succinctly.

‘Shush,’ said Serafina, and they concentrated on the show once more.

As soon as the tumult died down, the duet continued but when, at the end of it, Mr Harcross swept Coralie into his arms and kissed her full-bloodedly upon the lips, another riot broke out. The more vulgar amongst the females present let forth a series of cat calls, whilst others offered to change places with Miss Clive and pay for the privilege. Meanwhile a susceptible virgin in one of the more prestigious boxes fainted clean away and had to be revived by her relatives. John and Samuel exchanged a glance of envious astonishment, wondering at the power of any one man to so move the fairer sex.

Eventually, the hubbub faded and the opera continued. Polly and Macheath, as played by Coralie and Mr Harcross, decided that for safety’s sake they had better part company and the actors, wringing the emotions of the audience pitilessly, indulged in a sad duet and an extremely tender farewell. Then the curtains closed and those with the strength left to do so made their way to the theatre saloon, a somewhat dubious meeting place for the sexes with a reputation for resembling a brothel as much as it did a tavern. Unable to face the thought of such a noisesome crush as would gather there, the occupants of the box remained where they were, awaiting the arrival of the various vendors who walked about the theatre during the interval.

‘Well,’ said Serafina thoughtfully, ‘I am glad I’m not in Miss Clive’s shoes.’

‘Glad?’ repeated her husband, laughing. ‘I thought every woman in the place would like to fill them.’

Au contraire
,’ the Comtesse answered, showing that she had lost none of her individualism. ‘He is a scene stealer, that pretty peacock. When he marries I am sure he will pick an ugly wife.’

‘Why so?’

‘Because he could not possibly allow anyone to compete with him. Have you not noticed how Coralie is having to struggle to make an impact?’

‘I think she’s charming,’ put in John, leaping to the actress’s defence. ‘I can’t take my eyes off her.’

Serafina’s glance glinted at him from behind her mask. ‘None the less, you will have spent quite a lot of time watching Macheath, now admit it.’

‘Well …’

‘John, I know you of old, you are dissembling. The truth is that Mr Harcross is one of those people who, admire him or otherwise, commands attention. And you gave it, just like the rest of us.’

‘Do you think Coralie is aware that he upstages her?’

‘She must be, she’s no newcomer to the theatre.’

‘She showed no annoyance, none the less.’

‘Then she’s either very good tempered or a very good actress.’

‘Or both.’

‘Indeed,’ said the Comtesse, and turned her attention to her husband, who was buying fruit and wine from a vendor and wanted his wife’s advice.

Samuel called across the space between himself and John, ‘What say we go and pay our respects to Miss Clive?’

‘A splendid idea,’ answered the Apothecary, getting to his feet. And leaving the box, the two friends sauntered towards the door that led behind the scenes, it being quite the done thing to go backstage between the acts and talk to the performers.

Beyond the closed curtains the stage swarmed with shirtsleeved men, all in a fine muck sweat as they dragged scenery and furniture to and fro, changing the set for the next act. Of the actors there was no sign, but a straggle of determined women climbing a staircase that led to the right of the stage gave John the clue that above might lie the dressing rooms, and that these were the pilgrims heading for the Mecca of Mr Harcross.

‘This way,’ he said to Samuel, then wondered why he felt a sudden thrill of nervousness at the thought of seeing Coralie Clive again.

But at that moment his mind was completely taken off any such emotion by the sound of raised voices coming from the landing. Looking upwards, John saw that the route was blocked, almost completely, by the actress playing Mrs Peachum, who was currently pouring scorn on the rivulet of eager females attempting to make their way to Jasper Harcross.

‘It’s no use, ladies. He ain’t receiving and that’s it. And it’s no good looking at me like that. Mr Harcross does not meet the public until after the performance. I thought every theatre-goer knew that.’

‘But I’m Lady Dukes,’ boomed one of them.

Mrs Clarice Martin bobbed a curtsey that ill concealed her contempt.

‘I’m sorry, Madam, were you the Queen herself, Mr Harcross would not break his rule.’

‘And who are you to speak for him?’ commanded Lady Dukes, undaunted.

‘I am his colleague and friend. And now I’ll ask you kindly to step down and return to your seats. The performance is about to begin.’

Her eyes, very large and blue and obviously once very lovely, froze the women admirers with a stare so icy that John caught himself thinking that he most certainly wouldn’t like to get on the wrong side of her.

‘And you, Sir,’ Mrs Martin continued, not quite so coldly, ‘where might you be going?’

John returned her gaze and beheld an extraordinary phenomenon that he had witnessed only once or twice before. The expression in the speaker’s eyes changed rapidly without her altering her facial muscles at all. First, came a look of calculation, followed almost immediately by a sparkling flirtatiousness. The actress was one of those women who reserved her contempt and dislike entirely for her own sex and warmed at once to a male.

‘I was going to see my friend, Miss Clive,’ the Apothecary answered, hoping he sounded as irritated as he felt, ‘but as you say the interval is nearly over …’

He got no further. On the landing a door banged and there was the noise of booted feet in the corridor.

‘Clarrie,’ called a voice, ‘where the devil’s that wretched boy? Did he not get me some cordial? Go and find him, there’s my good girl.’

There was a shriek from the women wending their way back downstairs and they turned in a body to peer upwards, as did John and Samuel. And there, resplendent in a scarlet coat, his black hair tied back in a queue by a matching satin bow, his beautiful eyes dancing at the extraordinary sight beneath him, his arm round the waist of Miss Coralie Clive, stood Jasper Harcross himself. Unreasonably annoyed, John attempted to turn away but not before the actress had seen him. A light of recognition slowly stirred in her eyes.

‘Gracious heavens,’ she called out, ‘is it not Mr Rawlings?’

‘It is,’ John answered grimly and, hemmed in as he was, made her a polite and very formal bow.

Chapter Two

Fortunately, Act Two of
The Beggar’s Opera
commenced with a rousing drinking song, given boisterous voice by the actors playing the various members of Macheath’s gang of thieves, all seated round a table loaded with bottles of wine and brandy, to say nothing of jars of tobacco, the scene realistically representing a tavern near Newgate. This merry sight and sound gave a lift to the spirits of those members of the audience who had become disgruntled during the interval, of whose number John Rawlings was most certainly one. Though he would have been loath to admit this fact to anyone other than Samuel, who fully shared John’s view that Jasper Harcross had an almost uncanny and quite unjustified hold over women.

‘Did you see the arrogant creature preening at the sight of those eager females wanting to meet him?’ he said as they had walked back to the box.

‘Talk about the cock by hens attended,’ John answered irritably. ‘Why, the song could have been written about him.’

‘Do you think Miss Clive is enamoured of the fellow?’

John had nodded glumly. ‘It would certainly appear so.’

‘Oh dear,’ Samuel sighed. ‘Why do women always fall in love with rogues?’

‘I imagine,’ John had observed, ‘that the combination of a libertine’s charm and the desire to transform the wretch into a model husband might be the answer.’

‘You’re right, of course. Perhaps we should adopt a more profligate approach.’

The Apothecary had chuckled audibly at the thought of so transparent and good-natured a creature as Samuel Swann doing any such thing.

‘I would stay exactly as you are if I were you. You have an appeal that is entirely your own. And to hell with Jasper Harcross.’

‘Hear, hear,’ Samuel had responded as they re-entered the box.

Serafina and Comte Louis had been exchanging a kiss as their guests returned, a sight which had warmed both their hearts. But instead of jumping apart guiltily, this splendid couple had welcomed their friends with enthusiasm, and embraced one another a second time before once more assuming their role of host and hostess. Then with their wine glasses charged they had all settled down to watch the performance, Serafina much amused by the faces of her husband and companions as Jasper Harcross made more than a meal of his scene with the ladies of the town, each purporting to rival the others for his affections so realistically that it was hard to believe they were only acting.

Mon Dieu
, art mirrors life I believe,’ Louis muttered.

‘You’re not envious surely?’ she asked with apparent astonishment.

‘How could I be? I have you.’

‘Ah, gallant indeed.’

They smiled at one another and continued to watch Mr Harcross, who kissed and fondled his leading ladies with great panache and enjoyment.

‘And to think he gets paid for it,’ said Samuel morosely, and there was a ripple of laughter from the box which the actor obviously heard, for his head, very briefly, moved in their direction.

The Newgate prison scene began and with it the first glimpse of the amazing effects promised by Mr Garrick for this new production. In full view of the audience, the stagehands heaved off the furniture used in the tavern and then, lowered on ropes at some considerable speed, a barred window was flown down and settled on the stage to act as the backdrop. Simultaneously, two flats were pushed forward from either wing and these were hooked on to it, still in full public gaze, to form a gloomy gaol cell. There was a cheer from the gallery, which was taken up by the rest of the house, and during it Mr Harcross strode back on wearing his serious face.

‘Now we’re going to see some tearing tragedy,’ said John with a groan.

‘Yes, I truly believe he’ll spare us nothing,’ Serafina answered.

Spirits were raised a few moments later, however, by the arrival of Lucy Lockit, played by Mrs Delaney, a mettlesome little redhead who buzzed round Jasper like an angry wasp.

‘You base man you,’ she shouted, obviously putting her heart and soul into her performance. ‘How can you look me in the face after what hath passed between us? See here, perfidious wretch, how I am forced to bear about the load of infamy you have laid upon me …’

And Mrs Delaney placed her hand upon her body, neatly padded out, to make quite sure that the audience did not miss the point that the fearless highwayman had enjoyed his wicked way with Lucy and left her in an interesting condition. There was a roar of laughter at this, loudest of all from the gallery, slightly embarrassed from the tender young females. Samuel, never a one to disguise his feelings, guffawed, whilst John, running his professional eye over Mrs Delaney’s rounding, thought how genuine it looked.

The opera proceeded with the inevitable meeting between Polly Peachum and Lucy Lockit, spitting like cats over Macheath, then singing a spirited duet in which one vied with the other as to who could produce the most trills and cadenzas. Here, John Gay had parodied the Italian opera to his heart’s content and the audience, understanding this yet appreciating the singing for all that, clapped wildly. Just as if it were a true vocal contest, as each girl stepped forward and sang they were rewarded with boisterous applause and, finally, cheers. Macheath, meanwhile, made quite sure that nobody forgot him by pulling the most amusing series of faces.

‘Couldn’t he let them have their moment of glory?’ John whispered to Serafina.

‘Obviously not. I told you he was a peacock.’

The act ended with Mrs Delaney alone on the stage, Lucy having given Macheath the keys to Newgate gaol in order that he might escape. Sinking down on the bare boards, the actress sang one of the most moving arias in the entire piece. There was absolute silence in the theatre, even the gallery quiet, as her beautiful voice soared out with the words:

‘I like the Fox shall grieve,

Whose mate hath left her side,

Whom Hounds, from morn to eve

Chase o’er the country wide.’

‘Oh dear,’ said Serafina, and slipped her hand beneath her mask to wipe away a tear.

‘One would almost think she meant it,’ remarked the Comte, obviously also affected.

‘She probably does,’ John answered, and smiled to himself at the way of the world.

It was time for the interval again, but on this occasion nobody left the box except to answer the calls of nature in the Office Houses provided for that purpose. Instead, the Comte de Vignolles and his guests surveyed the audience and in turn were surveyed.

‘There’s David Garrick,’ said Samuel, pointing.


‘In that stage box high up.’

‘Is that his wife with him or his mistress?’

‘It’s Madame Violetta, of course. He would hardly flaunt his light-o-love in public.’

‘But she’s most certainly here,’ put in Serafina, and gestured towards a box in which the celebrated actress Peg Woffington sat alone.

John, staring from one lovely woman to the other, came to the conclusion that actors must be greedy when it came to matters of love and lust. The company of the dancer, Madame Violetta, Garrick’s lawful wife, would have been quite enough for him without throwing the charming black-haired Miss Woffington in for good measure. Then he took himself to task for being too sober and dull and decided that it was in the nature of mankind to flirt. With this in mind he took Serafina’s hand and gave it a squeeze.

‘Neither of them is as exquisite as you.’

‘Oh come now,’ she answered, but the Comtesse was smiling behind her mask and he knew that he had pleased her.

‘Are you dallying with my wife?’ asked Louis.

‘Of course.’

‘I’m pleased to hear it, you are sometimes far too serious for your own good.’ And with that the Comte refilled everyone’s wine glass. ‘Here, we’re going to need this. Mr Harcross is about to wring our withers.’

‘Oh dear!’ said John, and then, just for the briefest second, the strange feeling of fear swept over him once more. Determined to ignore it, the Apothecary concentrated hard as the curtains parted for the last act.

Once again the dismal scene of Newgate revealed itself, but it was not long before there was another of Mr Garrick’s wonders. As the action changed to a gaming house, the barred window was hauled up out of sight and an elegant velvet curtain dropped in its place. The two flats, meanwhile, were unhooked and turned on their casters to reveal a painted representation of a grand saloon with chandeliers. At the same moment the stagehands dashed on at speed carrying with them card tables, cards and dice. A thunderous cheer broke out and Mr Garrick, in his box, winked at his wife. Jasper Harcross appeared in a fine tarnished coat and threw himself into a rendering of
, which John considered far too long drawn out.

Greatly to his relief, the scene changed to Peachum’s Lock, a cant word for a warehouse in which stolen goods are received. Unable to do much with such a quick change, David Garrick had merely loaded the set with properties representing booty and directed the actors playing Peachum and Lockit to examine them as they discussed the goods lifted at the coronation of George II in 1727.

It was at this juncture that Mr Garrick dispensed with a theatrical tradition which the Apothecary, having an extremely neat and logical mind, had always thought quite ridiculous. The scene between the two men was interrupted by the arrival of Mrs Diana Trapes, the tally woman, a part played at the original performance and ever since by the actress who had taken the role of Mrs Peachum. When he had first heard the opera, John had wondered for a second why Peachum’s wife had come on dressed as someone else, then had seen through the device. But tonight, mercifully, a different woman appeared, a tall thin creature with auburn hair swept up beneath a saucy hat.