Read Chapter One
Friday 18th March 1746
The shadow of the tall gallows hung heavily down on the small, dusty village square where almost a dozen men and a solitary, young woman muttered darkly to each other while another larger, silent crowd stood to the other side. Every face was turned towards the grim, door frame shaped structure from which the noose swung lazily. With the doleful ringing of a handbell a fat priest walked into the square with a young man by his side who, despite the rope binding his hands, smiled cheerfully towards those awaiting his execution. Behind him strode the executioner with half his face hidden by a black mask and with a ladder over his shoulder.
“Make way,” he cried dramatically. “Make way for the doomed!”
The trio arrived at the foot of the gallows where the ladder was placed against the frame while the small crowd closest to the gallows began to cry for mercy. The prisoner silenced them with a smile and a shake of his head. “Be of good cheer,” he said lightly. “I have lived a good life. My crimes, such as they are, have brought me here, and now I must atone for them. I have made my peace with He who judges all of us in the end. I am happy to depart this life confident that I go to a better one.” Stepping forward he addressed not only the few people who stood before him in the square but directed his voice out towards the three hundred men and women who sat in rapt silence in the darkness beyond the village square. “Here I stand before you, a simple man of the soil, now condemned to death on these grim gallows. I have been judged guilty by those who hold the reins of power over those such as me. They are safe in their homes, far from here today. Safe in the knowledge that their children will not go hungry tonight. My sin was to steal from them to feed the poor of this benighted village, I gladly admit that I am indeed guilty of that crime, and would commit it again a hundred times over if it meant that no child would have to go to their bed off a night crying with hunger. As for murder? Murder they call it! I killed the Bishop’s man as he sought to force his attentions on an innocent maid! Is that murder?” He shook his head as he walked about the square under the watchful eyes of the hangman. “The true sin,” he continued with a nod of his chin, “is that of the Roman Church which seeks to crush down, and trample underfoot we followers of our Protestant Faith for daring to reject their superstitions and lies!” This caused loud murmurs of approval, not only among the small group he stood among but also among the seated figures who nodded their heads in agreement. “These Princes of Rome have for too long stolen the bread from the mouths of the poor, they dress themselves in red robes of silk and warm themselves with their sins of the flesh while we, aye we, the poor who are dressed in rags go cold for want of a fire. But hear my words my friends, the Kingdom is coming where we shall have all we need! The only fire these creatures of Papacy will enjoy are the fiery pits of Hell where they will toss and turn for eternity!” Several of the seated figures cheered these words before being quickly shushed by those around them. The speaker gave a small nod of his head towards those who had cheered before continuing. “I ask that you do not grieve for me my friends, the sins which have brought me here today have been washed clean by the blood of the Lamb. All I ask of you is this…” His eyes looked beyond those who stood around him and out into the darkness where three hundred hung on his every word. “Know that He is with you. He walks with you and sustains you when all others have abandoned you! He alone will never forsake or betray you. His hand rests on my shoulder today and tells me that it is time for me to go home to Him. I do so willingly, nay, I do so joyfully for I know that with the death of this poor earth-bound body I shall inherit a better, more radiant one in His Kingdom. There His truth will prevail evermore and the curse of Rome can no longer punish us for following Him. Dry your tears my friends, raise your voices in song in praise for His mercy and eternal glory. In life and in death, let it be known that we gave our all for Him, and that we never again bow the knee to any Prince of Rome!”
As the small crowd began to sing the 23rd Psalm he raised his chin and walked to the foot of the gallows where the hangman had placed another ladder beside the first. Carefully he helped the prisoner ascend one while he climbed the other until the noose could be placed around his neck.
At the foot of the gallows the priest shook a fist angrily at him. “Stinking heretic! You thought you could challenge the power of the Holy Roman Church with impunity?” As boos rang out from the seats the priest turned a baleful look upon them. “Unclean sinners,” he hissed at them. “Mend thy ways lest ye would wish to join this vile heretic here before you!” The booing grew to such a level that he was forced to wait for silence before he could continue as he turned back towards the prisoner. “Stinking heretic! You thought you cou…” He fell silent as he realised he was repeating himself and for a moment seemed confused before one of the villagers murmured something in his ear. With a tiny nod of thanks towards the man he carried on smoothly, “None may dare to think that they can challenge the power of Rome! Its authority reaches into the meanest hovel and stable you call home. Be it palace or byre, your home is under the power of Rome, and with a single word the most splendid figure of the Pope can have you cast down into the dirt if it pleases him…” Again the booing started, louder than ever as the priest stalked towards the seated crowd to wave a finger in warning before returning to the foot of the ladder. “Prince or pauper, all will bow their knee to the church of Rome!”
“Never!” cried the young man with the noose round his neck. “You may kill me, you palsied priest, but neither you nor your Pope in distant Rome can kill the truth we all know and believe in. Neither priest, bishop nor torture can tear us from our faith!”
The priest gave a low laugh full of evil. “The Holy Roman Church will settle for tearing you from this life!” he said cruelly as he stepped forward to twist the ladder away but the hangman quickly removed the noose from the young man’s neck before he could.
“Ye shall not hang this man,” he said in a deep, booming voice. Carefully he helped the prisoner back down the ladder as he added, “If anyone is to hang today, let it be those who most deserve it!”
The villagers surged forward to lay hold of the priest as the prisoner’s hands were released from the ropes which bound them. The pretty, young woman who had stood silently through all this now rushed forward to be enfolded in his arms while the priest was forced up the ladder where only a moment before he had stood.
“A curse on ye all!” the priest spat towards the crowd.
“No,” the young man replied as he looked up towards the priest. “A curse on you and all that you represent!”
The hangman placed the noose over the priests’ neck. Now he looked out over the heads of the villagers towards the seated crowd as he said, “what say you? Let him loose, or let him swing?”
“Let him swing!” the crowd roared back.
“So be it!” he said as he reached forward behind the priests’ back out of anyone’s sight before exchanging a look with the priest who gave a small nod in reply. “God have mercy on your filthy soul!” he said as he pushed the man from the ladder. It fell noisily to the floor while the crowd gasped in sudden horror as they watched the priest topple down towards the dusty ground only to come to a sudden shocking halt as the rope snapped taut leaving him to swing silently back and forth below the gallows. For a moment there was absolute silence then as a curtain dropped to hide the village square from their view the audience within the theatre erupted in applause and cheering. The house lights remained dimmed for a moment before the curtain was raised to reveal the villagers, the hangman, the young man and his lover and even the priest all lined up to take their bow and accept the applause.
* * *
An hour after the final curtain call Ezekiel Moore was basking in the congratulations of the eighty or so specially invited guests who stood on the stage. He could not have dreamt, or even dare imagine a more successful start for the first night of the brand new Royal North British Theatre standing proudly on College Wynd between the Cowgate and Jamaica Street just north of the university buildings. The building had taken almost two years to complete, but from the comments Ezekiel was hearing, it had been worth every penny he had sunk into the enterprise. The building lay on an east to west axis, and while the palatial entrance stood on College Wynd between Corinthian columns supporting an ornate portico, the much less grand rear door opened out onto Horse Wynd. The interior however reflected the entrance with seating for three hundred people in comfort: two hundred in the stalls and a further hundred in the dress circle which curved around the auditorium. No expense had been spared to make sure that the patrons would want for neither comfort nor entertainment. Every seat was upholstered in burgundy velvet which matched the drapes and swags which adorned the walls. Dozens of candles in mirrored sconce’s and lanterns ensured the theatre was brightly lit, and a small army of liveried servants were tasked with either lighting or extinguishing them as the occasion demanded. In the privacy of his bed he had dreaded that this grand opening would be a disaster. Something was sure to go wrong he feared, and for weeks his stomach had plagued him with anxiety as the day grew closer and closer. Ever since the vision had first come to him to build a purpose built theatre that dread had hung over him, something, he had convinced himself had to go wrong. Despite that feeling of dread he had still been looking forward to this evening. Now Edinburgh could rival London in putting on any show it wished. Gone were the days of being crammed into the back rooms of taverns, or draughty halls to watch amateurs toiling to deliver barely remembered lines. Now his patrons could relax, sit back and watch professionals deliver spell-binding performances on a regular basis. He had carefully chosen the Hopkins Players to deliver the opening performance having seen them previously in London on one of his regular visits to the southern city. The choice of play ‘The Faithful Ploughman’ had been a master-stroke he felt. Although it dated back almost a century, its central theme of a young man forced to resist the forces of Roman oppression fitted perfectly with the mood of unrest towards the Jacobite forces who had occupied the city only a few months before. For a time people had dreaded that the Church of Scotland would be outlawed, and despite promises from Prince Charles Edward Stewart that there would be religious freedom for all, suspicion still remained. The play may be no more than tired, old propaganda from an earlier age, but it still served its purpose. The character of the priest was such a pantomime villain it was easy for the audience to join in and boo him at every opportunity. Now as he stood centre stage he felt almost as though he was the star performer himself rather than the actors who had been allowed to remain to mingle with those whom he had carefully selected to join him on stage for drinks and food. Around him were some of the most powerful and influential men in the city. Their continued patronage of his theatre was as good as a bag of golden guineas being dropped directly into his pocket he felt.
“May I congratulate you Mr. Moore,” Robert Craigie, Lord Advocate of Scotland and King George II direct representative for all civil matters in the kingdom, said with a smile as he shook the theatre directors’ hand. “Your theatre is sure to be a huge boon to our city. I wish you continued success my good sir.”
Ezekiel Moore was so overawed by being in the great mans’ presence that all he could was mumble out a word of thanks as he gazed at the smiling face of the most powerful man in the country, outside of the kings’ son who commanded the army chasing the rebels somewhere in the north. “I pray that you enjoyed our show, my Lord?” he stammered out.
“Indeed I did sir. I shall look forward to your next show. What treat shall you present for us next, may I ask?”
“I had thought that Shakespeare may be suitable, my Lord. Perhaps Romeo and Juliet, or MacBeth?”
“Capital idea sir,” the Lord Advocate nodded. “You shall certainly bring some much needed entertainment to Edinburgh. Yes, I shall be sure to purchase a ticket for that.”
“No, not at all my Lord,” Ezekiel stuttered. “I shall be pleased to provide you with as many tickets as you wish, gratis. Your presence alone is reward enough for such a lowly purveyor of diversion, as I dare call myself, I assure you.”
The Lord Advocate nodded his thanks. “Well sir, I shall be sure to tell all and sundry that if they seek to be entertained, then they need look no further than your fine establishment. Now you must forgive me, but I must be away. Duty calls. However, I assure you sir, I shall look forward to my next visit.” With a bow of his stately, bewigged head he made his departure followed by several minions who were never far from his side leaving Ezekiel positively glowing with pride and more convinced than ever that his fortune was all but made. Taking a sip of the wine in his hand he allowed himself to walk on a carpet of air through the men and women accepting their congratulations until he saw two familiar faces.
* * *
“Mr. Young, Mistress Young,” he said with a wide smile. “Thank you for attending the opening of my theatre. It is a pleasure to see you here.”
“And it is our pleasure to be here,” smiled Robert Young in return. He had met Ezekiel several times in the last few weeks through his wife Euphemia’s father who had printed the commemorative programmes for the evenings’ show. The design of this programme had changed several times and Euphemia had finally been called upon to deliberate on how it should look before Ezekiel had declared himself satisfied. Robert’s reputation as a man who it paid to be on friendly terms with, had also meant the couple had received an invitation. He had earned that name and reputation for himself by successfully extricating several powerful men from potentially unpleasant situations where they had stood accused of crimes they were innocent of. Robert had been able to dig into the mire of the city’s underbelly to find the evidence required to clear their names. Now lawyers and advocates, when needing assistance to keep their clients out of the Tolbooth, regularly beat a path to his door. He enjoyed the challenge provided by this work, and also enjoyed the money which he charged for his services. His wife, despite her misgivings that he was placing himself at risk by rubbing shoulders with the criminal classes, supported him but only on the understanding that he did nothing to place his life in danger. He had three children to take care of after all. Two were under the age of five while the older, adopted, daughter, aged almost sixteen, had been rescued from the streets of the city and taken into their home where she soon became as much part of the family as the son and daughter born to his young wife. All of this was now well known to Ezekiel, who although not requiring Robert’s professional help himself, knew when it paid to get to know people who may be useful at some point in the future.
He shook the proffered hand warmly as he looked at the tall, well-built figure before him. Robert Young was just a whisker under six foot in height with an open, handsome face and shoulder length brown hair gathered back into a queue. It was easier to admire his wife though. Euphemia Young at the age of twenty-five was three years younger than her husband and a few inches shorter, but her heart shaped face was as close to perfection as any Ezekiel had ever had the pleasure of viewing. Masses of loose blonde curls were being valiantly constrained by a lemon ribbon which matched her elegant dress. It was her blue eyes which captivated him though. Every time he met her he could feel himself willing to drown in the liquid pools of those eyes, and were he not married, he would have declared his love for her despite the fact she was already married and less than half his age. Forcing his eyes to move away from her face he managed to speak to Robert to thank him again for attending.
“There is nowhere we would rather be,” Robert replied with a smile, knowing only too well the effect his wife had on the poor man. In truth he was not keen on attending plays and had only come along at Euphemia’s insistence. She thoroughly enjoyed the theatre and he had learned that for the sake of harmony at home it paid to share some of her interests.
Euphemia chose that moment to add, “The play was an unusual choice Mr. Moore, and I would have thought that, perhaps, Ramsey’s Gentle Shepherd would have provided a more local flavour for your launch?”
Ezekiel nodded happily at her words. “Oh, an excellent play Mistress Young, and I can promise you that I fully intend to put on a performance of it within a few weeks. I am sorry my choice for this evening was not to your taste.”
“Not in the least sir,” she blessed him with a smile. “It was very well performed and the cast earned the applause. I just felt it was starting to show its age a little.”
“Perhaps,” he conceded with a slight frown. But the smile soon returned as he added, “I hope the next choice will be more to your taste. Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet?”
“Oh a fine choice sir, a fine choice. Will you be using the same people? The young woman who played the village maiden would make an excellent Juliet.”
“My thoughts exactly Mistress Young,” Ezekiel enthused in response. “Would you like to meet her? And some of the other cast members?”
“That would be delightful” Euphemia smiled, aware that by her side she could tell that Robert was sighing inwardly at the thought there was no early escape for him. While Ezekiel Moore hurried across the stage to gather some of the troupe she turned her gaze towards her husband who meet her look evenly with a slight smile playing on the corners of his lips.
“What?” he asked innocently. “I never said a word!”
“You didn’t have to!” she said quietly as her eyes surveyed him narrowly. “I could hear you groaning in your head from here! And since when have you turned your nose up at the chance to meet a beautiful woman?”
“The only beautiful woman I wish to meet is the one standing before me right now.”
“Daftie!” she laughed as she gently cuffed his arm but couldn’t stop herself from giggling at his words. “The play wasn’t that bad was it? You were laughing and booing just as loudly as anyone else!”
“What can I say?” he asked with his hands out to his side. “I am a Philistine, and would rather be warming my tootsies by my own fireplace instead of soaking up culture.” If it wasn’t for the amusement in his eyes she may have believed him which earned his arm another cuff along with a laugh.
“Here they come,” she hissed in warning. “Be nice for my sake, please.” Turning to face the theatre impresario who bustled towards them with the actress and the young man who had played the hero in tow in his wake.
“Mistress Young, it is my very great pleasure to introduce you to Miss Susanna Hopkins,” he announced as he reached them and gently moved the young woman forward with a hand in the small of her back.
“Miss Hopkins, may I say how much I enjoyed your performance,” Euphemia said with a broad smile at meeting one of the stars of the show. Face to face the actress, now stripped of her stage make-up looked even younger than she had during the performance although she still wore the simple rustic, peasant outfit her role demanded. The girl’s pale, pretty face and dark eyes were framed by bobbed black hair. “I confess that despite my misgivings about the tone of the play, I thoroughly enjoyed your performance. You and this handsome young man by you made a most convincing couple.”
“Why, bless you for your kindness,” Susanna smiled. “Our acting must be slightly less rustic than the play,” she laughed. “It is rather dated isn’t it? Do you know its original title was Der Treue Pflüger? It was first performed in Germany during the Thirty Years War as propaganda!” She gave an amused shake of her head. “Despite, or perhaps because of its heavy handed characters, it became hugely popular and was soon translated into English and performed on this side of the North Sea. Charles the First actually banned it for being inflammatory, but it was still performed in villages up and down the land. There was no such ban in Scotland, I think your churchmen fully approved of its tone.” She gave another merry laugh then nodded towards the young hero by her side before adding in a pleasant English accent. “Now as for my romantic hero here? I fear that he is as far from my ideal beau as I can imagine!”
Euphemia moved her gaze from the pretty face of the shorter young woman to the man who matched her husband in height and build and now saw the similarity in features. With the dawning of realisation she laughed. “Your brother? Yes, I can see now why he would fail to be your ideal. Although I am sure that there would be no shortage of others who would say that you sir, would make the ideal hero for many a feminine tale.”
The young man, a year or two older than his young sister laughed at her words. “Mistress Young, you are much to kind to a poor actor,” he said in a professionally polished voice. “We lowly actors have no choice but to act the roles assigned us. Even if the roles should have been retired many a long year ago!” He cast a narrow look towards Ezekiel who chose to pretend he hadn’t heard anything. “May I be so bold as to introduce myself as neither my silly sister, nor director have thought to do so? Jeremy Hopkins at your service milady, although I prefer Jem if truth be told.”
* * *
While his wife chatted happily with the siblings Robert allowed himself to fade into the background content to watch and listen to the assembled throng made up largely of familiar faces who he exchanged smiles and nods with. Not every smile or nod was friendly however for there were several men there who he knew only too well; men who had either called on him for help and resented the fact their secrets were known, and those who had been disadvantaged through his prying. None were any real danger to him he knew. Others who had thought to put an end to his work had found themselves face to face with a man who had taken it upon himself to guard Robert and his family from harm. Nothing was really known about the accidents some men had suffered after being too vocal against him, but the rumours alone served as a warning to those who took real offence to him and his work. Robert himself knew only these rumours for he had never sought to confirm them with the man who he knew was responsible. Rumours were enough. His attention was drawn back to the actors by his wife as the man who had played the role of the priest sauntered over to stand by him.
“Good evening sir, James Hopkins at your service,” he said as he thrust out his hand towards Robert who shook it. “I trust our poor efforts weren’t too execrable for you?”
“No, not at all,” Robert hastily replied as his eyes ran over the figure before him. Something about the way the man had walked during the final scene now struck him as he noticed how sprightly he had been before, and again now as he walked over to join him. Remarking on this the middle-aged man laughed.
“Aha! You have an eye for detail sir,” he said, clearly amused. “Yes, there is a very good reason for that I assure you. It has all to do with the unhappy priest’s demise.”
“The hanging?” Robert’s eyebrows drew down in concentration before a smile lit up his face. “I admit I was astonished when you tumbled from the ladder! I thought that something dreadful had gone wrong and we had all played witness to a tragedy.” Again his eyes roamed over the figure before him and while the family resemblance to the son were clear to see in his face now that the make-up and stage warts had been removed, it was the man’s general shape which he focused on. Now that he considered it, not only had the priest shuffled awkwardly in that final scene but he had seemed bulkier too. “A harness? You wore some manner of harness below your robes! That is how it was done! Am I correct sir?”
The actor laughed merrily again. “You really do have an eye for detail don’t you? But I wonder if you, perchance, noticed my daughter Susanna also played the role of several men during the play? You didn’t? Splendid! The power of illusion sir. That, and skilfully applied make-up and costumes, what! My daughters all play male roles to bulk out certain scenes in plays. They even fence with each other, and the male players! Alas my good sir, when it comes to the priests’ demise, there are certain secrets of our craft which must remain just that: secrets! What I can share with you is that the Hopkins Players, this lowly band of itinerant wanderers composed largely of my wife and children, are one of the very few troupes who are capable of performing the final scene of that dismal play on-stage. Most others are forced to perform it through a shadow-play on a sheet behind the stage. While it is safer for amateurs that way, it lacks the dramatic effect on the audience. Your words that you thought you had witnessed a tragedy are reward enough, for the illusion obviously worked as intended. Had you said you were quite blasé about the priests death, I would have hung my head low in abject shame, for I would have failed in my task to entertain and, yes I confess it, to shock the audience just a little.”
“Well sir, I assure you that you achieved your end admirably.” Despite his misgivings about attending the play in the first place he was warming towards the father of the troupe whose ruddy face showed only enjoyment at his trade. His enthusiasm was contagious and Robert found himself enjoying talking with the man enormously as they chatted cheerfully for several minutes more before the man seemed to recall himself.
“Egad sir, I have been so busy enjoying speaking with you that I had quite forgotten why I had come over here in the first place.” He gave a rueful shake of his grey haired head. “I have been asked by that gentleman over there whether my daughter could be engaged to perform a selection of soliloquies by the Bard, at a soiree he is throwing this evening.” His finger indicated a stout figure in his early sixties who stood with several young men and women in their early twenties. “Mr. Moore advised me to speak with you. He says you know everyone who is worth knowing in town. Also I do not wish to send my daughter off with persons unknown. One cannot be too careful these days.”
“My Lord Richardson?” Robert asked as his eyes followed the finger.
“You know him?”
“Only by sight,” Robert replied. “He is said to be famously wealthy. He owns one of the big houses on the Canongate, set in its own grounds, but I do not think I know the others around him though.”
“Wealthy you say?” James said with a calculating look. “He tells me the others are his son and the young man’s friends. Well if he is wealthy, I think I can safely say that the cost of having my daughter perform has just doubled!” With a chuckle he excused himself and joined his son and daughter. The trio stepped to one side and had what seemed to be a heated discussion between father and son before the latter stormed off while the father and daughter crossed the stage to join Lord Richardson and the throng gathered around him. Robert watched this with some interest. It seemed clear the son was not happy about the daughter being engaged to perform privately. Whether this was due to professional jealousy and he felt that he should have been the one taken on, or for some other reason he couldn’t tell but let the matter slip from his mind as he re-joined Euphemia.
“About time!” she winked at him. “I see you have made a new friend!”
“The Priest?” he laughed. “Yes, he was a most entertaining conversationalist, but would not be drawn on how he was hanged.”
“Or where his quarters are either I take it?”
Euphemia rolled her eyes. “Hanged. Drawn…”
He groaned as he took her arm and escorted her towards the exit. “And you accuse me of bad puns!”