An exerpt from Chapter 4 of my historical novel, Isobel Brite.
| Isobel walked in a rush towards the theatre, her heart beating faster with every step. Looking over her shoulder, fearful that she would see Mama storming up behind her, she mumbled to herself over and over again the words of Ophelia.
She had not slept a wink. While Cassandra lay sleeping, she had crept out of bed, lit a candle and sat reading her part until she knew most of it by heart. But even when she finally crawled under the sheets, she could not relax enough to fall asleep. Her stomach would keep turning over and over, and her thoughts tumbled from one scenario to another.
Scared that she would make an utter fool of herself and be rejected as an actress, yet scared of what would happen to her if she was accepted, she tossed and turned for the rest of the night. She had not told a soul, not even Cassandra, for she knew she would try to dissuade her. Yet now, for the first time in her life, it was possible that she might leave home for a life that was completely new. It was terrifying, yet exciting at the same time. But what on earth would she tell her parents?
She would think about that only if the incredible happened.
Which it probably wouldn't. How could they possibly take a shoemaker's daughter who had never been near a stage all her life? The idea seemed impossible, almost laughable. Yet, Frank had said it was possible.
Frank. Oh, the way he had looked at her yesterday. The things he had said!
Oh, she must get the part! She would die if she didn't! She may never see him again!
But if she left Daventry, would she ever see her family again? How could she leave Cassandra?
No, it was no use worrying about that. It just was not going to happen. It was impossible that her life could change so drastically after nineteen years of nothing happening at all! Her life was bound to continue as normal. How could she imagine anything else?
But, oh, not to see him again…
During the morning, red-eyed and yawning, she had sat demurely at her work, saying very little, but her mouth silently working away at the lines she was to say until her father began to throw her worried looks.
After lunch (at which she ate very little and her step-mother said she looked decidedly 'peaky') she sneaked into the store room for a few seconds.
At ten minutes to three she said to her father, 'Father, did you know we are all out of blue silk lace? I need some for Mrs Mercer's evening slippers.'
'Bless me! Are you sure? I would have staked my life we had plenty; it's not as if we use it very often.'
'Maybe that's why it's run out without you noticing, papa!' she said with a cheeky grin, 'But would you like to look yourself? Perhaps I was wrong, although I looked everywhere. But if you want to be completely sure…'
'No, no, Izzy. I am sure you are right. Emily,' he said, turning to one of his other daughters, 'go over to Mr Haddon's and see if they can make up some fine silk shoe lace…'
Isobel stood up hastily. 'Oh no, papa. Let me go. I need a little air. I have a slight headache again, and it may take a while for Haddon to cut it, and Emily will not be able to sit for so long without becoming impatient. I am quite happy to, really.'
Mr Brite looked with surprise at his daughter, but acquiesced, pleased at this unusual show of maturity.
She had run upstairs, taken off her dirty apron, and put on her best bonnet, making sure her hair peeped out in little tendrils, and scurried off towards the theatre, a ball of blue lace from the store room still hidden in her pocket.
When she walked into the theatre, she had a moment of utter confusion. Had she come to the wrong building? She had remembered the stage as a place of magic, glowing with lights with coloured scenery creating the illusion of castles or graveyards. The rest of the barn had been filled with people, and had smelt strongly of the sweat of farm labourers, orange peel and sawdust. It had had a special, strange, exciting atmosphere that she had breathed in at first with slight distaste, but then with relish. It had been like entering Aladdin's Cave.
Now, the benches were empty, some of them piled in corners to make way for a large table just in front of the stage. The stage was merely a slightly raised platform, bare and colourless, the broad light of day shining through uncurtained windows on either side. In the corners were piled strangely shaped objects, which Isobel recognised after a few moments as the screens that had stood on stage, representing castle walls or trees, now lying incongruously on their sides. A painted canvas of a castle courtyard still hung at the back, but seemed gaudy and out of place in the daylight.
There were some people on the stage, but there was no show going on. A young lady was practising a pirouette over and over again with nobody watching. A group of people stood talking towards one side.
In the space next to the table by the stage, Frank and another actor, about ten years older than Frank, were practising a swordfight, dressed only in loose shirts and britches. By the table was sitting a large man facing the duellists, giving comments and orders while he tapped out time on the ground with a walking stick.
'A little faster, Mr Fenton, we want to excite the audience, not send them to sleep. And when he lunges, try not to look like a startled sheep!'
As they were about to commence the fight again, Frank suddenly held up his sword, shouting 'Hold!'
In several leaps and bounds over and around the remaining benches, he came towards Isobel. Isobel thought she had never seen anyone so handsome as Frank did in his wide-sleeved shirt and a cravat loosely tied under his neck, his hair long and tousled, his face flushed and animated with physical excursion.
Her cheeks were burning crimson as he took her hand and led her through the benches to the large table, where she felt the critical eye of Henry Jackman scrutinising her every move.
'Did I not tell you,' Frank said to Mr Jackman, 'that she would be here at three? And did I not tell you that she would be beautiful?'
Isobel could not prevent a coy smile, and inside she shivered with delight.
Henry Jackman looked her up and down.
'Hmmm, a pleasing figure. What is your name, child?'
'Isobel Brite, sir.' she answered, modestly.
'Speak up, child!' he boomed, 'If you want to be an actress you have to learn to make your voice reach the back of a barn.'
Isobel had never had anyone speak to her like that, except her step-mother. Nor had anyone looked at her in quite the same way, as if sizing up a piece of meat in a market. She felt a rush of indignation which rose up and made her forget her nervousness. Lifting her chin up, and looking down at him (he was still seated, which she thought very rude), she grew an inch taller, and announced in a loud and clear voice,
'My name is Isobel Brite.' This time she forgot the 'sir'.
She felt her voice echo around the building. The girl on the stage stopped pirouetting and stared at her, and the group in the corner stopped talking and turned around to see who had spoken.
Isobel felt everybody's eyes on her, but she stood her ground. She rather liked the feeling of being the centre of attention. It was a little frightening, but also rather exhilarating.
Henry Jackman sat back in his chair and roared with laughter.
Isobel was not used to being laughed at. She didn't like it. It was really too much. Growing yet another inch taller, she turned abruptly and stormed towards the door, knowing that everyone was watching her.
Behind her, as she went through the door, she heard the booming voice of Jackman.
'Not only has she got spirit and presence, but she makes an excellent dramatic exit! Catch her, Frank, catch her!'
Isobel walked, not quite so quickly as she could have done, away from the theatre in the direction of Sheaf Street. When Frank caught up with her she saw that he was smiling from ear to ear.
'Miss Brite! You must return. The old man likes you!'
Isobel stopped walking. Of course, she was going to return. But she wasn't going to make it easy.
'Mr Douglas, I came here today to try a part. I did not come to be humiliated and… and… degraded!' She turned again to walk away.
'Miss Brite.! Isobel!'
She stopped. My word. He had called her by her Christian name. It was all very exciting.
'Mr Douglas?' she said, as calmly as possible.
'Please, please, come back. You must not mind old Henry. That's just his way. He's a theatrical; we all are! That's the way we are with each other. It's all meant in good faith, and in fun. It's something that you'll have to get used to in the theatre. I suppose that's why we're different from the rest of society. We don't pander to, how shall I put it, false etiquette?'
Isobel thought for a moment. She liked the thought of being different. It was something she had secretly felt all her life, that she was different. Saying and doing 'the right thing' had always bored her.
'Very well,' she said, 'I will return.'
Smiling, Frank took her by the arm and led her back to the theatre entrance. But before they went in, he stopped and whispered in her ear:
'You have just made your first dramatic exit. Now show them that you can make a grand entrance!'
Isobel grinned, and looked up at him, her eyes twinkling. 'Very well,' she whispered, 'Open the door for me, when I say.'
She stood by the door and at a nod, Frank pulled it open swiftly.
She stood in the doorway, knowing that her 'pleasing figure' would be silhouetted in the door frame against the afternoon sun. Taking a moment to make sure that all eyes were upon her again, she then walked with dignity and grace down the centre of the building towards the stage. Instead of stopping to speak to Mr Jackman, who was watching her every move, she swept past him without looking at him, climbed the steps up onto the stage and took the centre of it.
Again, she took a moment to make sure everyone was listening and then spoke, directly to Mr Jackman, but loudly enough for all to hear, including Frank. He was now standing at the back of the auditorium, leaning against the door, his arms folded, that now familiar grin on his face.
'Mr Jackman, I have reconsidered my departure, and I have decided to give you another chance. I believe you would like to see me play the part of Ophelia. I can do this whenever you are ready.'
Mr Jackman, looking both delighted and astonished, said, 'Indeed, Miss Brite, when ever you are ready.'
'I presume you would like me to take off my bonnet?'
'Indeed, I would, Miss Brite.'
Isobel undid the ribbon under her chin, removed her bonnet, and threw it towards one of the actors at the side of the stage, who managed to catch it with some surprise.
Then, Isobel removed the pins that were holding up her hair, and let it fall down, tossing her head so the curls cascaded in red waves around her shoulders.
Clutching her hands to her throat, and raising her eyes to the heavens, she began.
'Oh, what a noble mind is here overthrown…'