Earl's Well That Ends Well (The Way to a Lord's Heart #5) - Jane Ashford Page 0,1

shabby London street. They all grinned at him. He judged they were apprentices having a rare day out on this first clement spring afternoon.

“Naught to worry about,” said another of them. “This is a respectable neighborhood. No footpads lurking in the alleyways to cosh you and lift your purse ’round here.”

“Naw, just mouthy coves making a nuisance of theirselves,” said Tom, who sauntered up just then and joined Arthur.

A volley of good-natured insults followed. Arthur gathered that the parties, near in age, knew one another and rather enjoyed a verbal tussle. And Tom exhibited a flair and volubility that Arthur hadn’t seen in him before. “Yer naught but a beslubbering dog-hearted flapdragon,” he told one of the group. “And Alf there is a weedy, toad-spotted puttock.” He rolled out the final word with obvious relish, as if it had a savory taste.

“Well, you’re a gudgeon,” replied one of the apprentices.

Tom shook his head in mock disappointment. “That’s the best you can do, Jem Dowling? Where’s your imagination, ye pribbling jolthead?”

“Jolthead,” repeated the one Tom had called Alf. “Jolthead.” He grinned as if the sound alone was hilarious. And indeed the whole group seemed to admire Tom’s eloquence. Arthur began to suspect that they goaded him just to hear the result.

“Shall we go, my lord?” asked Tom, with a gesture fully worthy of the stage.

“Milord, is it?” called one of the apprentices. “Well, ain’t we grand?” The group began to mince about the cobbles and bow to each other, drawing a laugh from their target.

Arthur fell in beside Tom, and they walked on. “That was extremely…colorful,” he said.

“It’s that fellow Shakespeare,” replied Tom. “Reckon you’d know already that his plays are chock-full of first-rate words.”

“Ah, yes. So you’ve been reading Shakespeare?”

“Puzzling it out, all I can get my hands on,” answered Tom cheerfully. Tom was nearly always cheerful, which still surprised Arthur sometimes, considering the lad’s history.

Tom had spent his earliest years scrounging through the rubbish on the streets of Bristol, with no knowledge of his family or even his last name. After a series of odd jobs, he’d taken to wandering the countryside on his own, where he’d encountered Arthur and then joined him on his travels for a while. Exposed to the inner workings of the London theater in the course of their adventures, Tom had discovered a desire to join that colorful world.

Nearing sixteen, the lad was beginning to grow into his features, as well as the large bones that showed in his hands and wrists. He seemed to have sprouted several inches in the last few months, Arthur thought. Tom’s homely, round face was gaining definition. He’d taken to wearing his brown hair longer, tied with a bit of cord at the back. His blue eyes continued to look out on the world with amiable curiosity.

“I’m thinking of Jesperson,” said Tom.

Arthur realized that he’d missed a remark or two. “What?”

“For my name,” said Tom. “Mrs. Thorpe calls it a stage name, but I reckon it’ll be more than that for me since I ai…haven’t got any name of my own.”

“Ah. Jesperson?”

“Because I’m just-a-person,” replied Tom with a broad smile.

Arthur laughed. “Mrs. Thorpe would know best about that choice.” Arthur had introduced the two. His unusual friendship with the acclaimed London actress had come through her banker husband.

“She’s been right kind to me,” Tom acknowledged. “Found me a job building scenery pieces. They call ’em flats, did you know? Because they’re flat, I reckon. Can’t be because they’re boring, since they ain’t.” He offered this information with gusto. Tom had a passion for learning, if not for schools.

“And you’re enjoying it as much as you expected?” Arthur asked, though he was fairly sure he knew the answer.

His young companion nodded. “It’s like I said before. I feel at home at the theater.”

It was true that many actors were as rootless as Tom, Arthur thought. They formed a class of their own outside the bounds of conventional society. Tom’s lack of antecedents didn’t brand him there, as it would almost anywhere else. “I’m glad,” he said.

They turned into the street where Tom was living. Arthur and Mrs. Thorpe had helped find him a room that was near the theaters but outside the raucous passageways that tended to surround them. His landlady looked after him like a ferocious mother hen.

“No, you will not look inside it!” declared an accented female voice just ahead. “You will go away and let me be!”

Arthur looked over the head of a passerby in time

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