The Crown and Anchor tavern was only a little out of the way home, and Ned made his way there as soon as the curtain fell each night. After his successful comic turn in the pantomime, he was in favour and secured a small part in the farce that followed. When the curtain fell he was out of the building within minutes, usually alone but occasionally with a fellow actor or two. He always bought Maggie a drink, and she always rewarded him with a few minutes of her time when she could, longer on quieter nights when her attention wasn’t so in demand.
‘This isn’t all I’m good for,’ she told him one night in February. ‘I got plans. I didn’t come all the way to London just to hand out beer to drunks.’
‘What did you come for then? Looking for a rich husband?’ he teased hopefully.
‘I wouldn’t say no if I had the chance, but I thought there’d be more work opportunities here. I grew up in a country town. My father was the blacksmith. It’s not a trade for a woman, and then he tried to marry me off to the baker’s son! The lad was so ugly and stupid that his father was offering out a dowry in order to get rid of him.’ Her indignation was such that Ned burst out laughing, apologising when she looked put out.
‘I do not mean to mock you, Maggie,’ he explained. ‘It is only that I suddenly had a vision of this poor idiot. You were right to leave, but what would you do if you had the choice?’
She looked down at her hands, her cheeks reddening. ‘I had a thought recently but surely it is a foolish idea.’
‘You can tell me, Maggie.’ Ned leaned over, bold from the beer, and took hold of her hands. ‘You can trust me with anything.’
‘I do believe I could. ‘She smiled. ‘You have been kinder to me Ned than any man I’ve known. I will tell you but you must promise me that you will not laugh.’ This he swiftly did. ‘Very well. I had the idea that I could work with you, Ned. At the theatre.’
He stared at her. ‘What? You mean as an actress?’
‘Yes. Oh, Ned, you don’t think I can do it, do you?’ He felt her tiny hands tremble in his. ‘You can laugh then if you want. Go on!’
‘No, Maggie.’ He leaned forward and dashed away a tear that had slowly fallen from her wide blue eyes. ‘I just wonder if you know what the life of an actress is. The money is not always good. And some of them have their bad reputation for good reason. When I leave the theatre at night there is often a queue of gentlemen awaiting their admittance. They’re no better than the women who work under the bridge. You are too precious, too good for that sort of work.’
‘You want to protect me, Ned, that is kind of you.’ She squeezed his hands in thanks. ‘I must get back to work though or I will lose even this poor job.’
Ned did not think any more of this conversation until two days later when he arrived at Drury Lane for rehearsal. He recognised Maggie’s copper red head from afar but could not believe it to be her until he was close enough to see her face, in profile as she watched the stage door.
‘Maggie,’ he said her name and she turned, smiling broadly as she saw him. ‘What brings you here?’
‘Hello Ned. You’ll never guess – I work here now.’ She was so proud to tell him that he felt a burst of happiness for her.
‘Really? And which role have you been given?’ He expected her to say that she had a part in the chorus, even as a ballet girl in the interval act. He was not prepared for the answer he received.
‘Ophelia! Ned, isn’t that incredible?’ She gripped his hands in excitement.
‘Yes, my goodness. So you will be playing opposite…’ He could not bring himself to say the name.
‘The great Ulysses Alexander.’ The man himself appeared, jacket slung over one arm as he proffered the other to Maggie. ‘Maggie, I see you have met Ned, also known as Horatio for the purposes of our play. Ned, they are waiting for you. Maggie here is coming with me. I will be instructing her personally on the bard’s text.’
Ulysses leered down at the young girl and she giggled, looking up at him with wide eyes as Ned’s stomach turned. There was nothing he could think to say as they walked off down the street but inside he was cursing himself for not acting sooner.