Authors: Sarah L. Thomson
He—or she, perhaps—spoke no word. Eyes so deeply shadowed I could not tell their color only looked up at me and the outstretched hand pleaded mutely.
I hesitated. It was sinful to beg. All who could should work for a living—
But if Master Marlowe had not taken me in, or if I failed to find some other plan before the week was out, would I come to this?
“Dost pay heed, Richard?” Master Marlowe asked, turning back to see what delayed me. He frowned, but slipped a hand into his purse and tossed a silver halfpenny in the beggar’s direction. She—or he?—snatched it out of the air and huddled back into the rags.
“Thou’lt need to find thy way about,” was all Master Marlowe said as I caught up with him, as if the beggar were not worthy of comment. “There’s the city wall, dost see?” He pointed ahead. The wall, its stones black with dirt and age, rose higher than my head, and I realized with surprise that we had crossed the city from south to north. “And Bishopsgate,” Master Marlowe added. That must be the arched opening that we were rapidly approaching. “My lodgings are in Norton Folgate; ’tis a ways beyond the wall.”
“Why so far, sir?” I asked, trying to put the beggar’s hungry stare out of my mind. Judging from Master Marlowe’s clothing, he was wealthy enough. Why did he not live in a fine house within the city itself?
“Most of us live beyond the city proper,” Master
Marlowe explained. “Players and playmakers, the lot of us. The playhouses are outside the city boundaries as well. The Lord Mayor is not so fond of us as he might be.” He chuckled, but there seemed to be little mirth in it. “Some say we cause riots, and some say we cause plagues, and yet they all keep coming to see the plays.”
We had passed through the gate by now. I had expected green fields to begin on the other side of the wall and was startled to find little change, the houses still crowded together, the road still paved beneath my feet. “The city outgrew its old jacket many years ago,” Master Marlowe said, noticing my surprise. “Not much farther now.”
Master Marlowe’s lodgings, when we reached them at last, were on the third floor of a bakery run by a widow, Mistress Stavesly. She came out to greet us, a tall, plain, red-haired woman, and stood dusting the flour from her hands as Master Marlowe introduced me.
“The boy will need a place to sleep,” he said. “Have you a pallet you can lend me, mistress?”
“Aye, I can let you have that.”
I dipped my head to her. “Thank you, mistress.”
“Such manners,” she said dryly. “I’ll think I’m at the court next. Master Marlowe, your rent is due tomorrow, kindly remember.”
“I hear and obey,” Master Marlowe said, and bowed
elaborately, as if she were the queen. She snorted and went back to her kitchen.
Master Marlowe’s lodging turned out to be nothing more than two rooms, each with one many-paned window. In the front room was a fireplace, a stool, and a table littered with papers and quills. On a shelf above the table there leaned some books and a lute, dusty as if untouched for many weeks. A few tankards and bowls and a spoon or two sat on another shelf. In the back room were Master Marlowe’s bed and a chest for his clothes. And that seemed to be all. A poor enough living space for someone who wore velvet and carried a sword like a rich gentleman.
I stood in the front room, feeling lost and not at all sure what a playmaker’s servant was supposed to do. But Master Marlowe decided the question for me. “I’m off,” he announced. “Thou canst….” He shrugged. “Settle thyself, I suppose.” With a wave of his hand, he seemed to say that I should make myself at home. “Ah, thou’lt need to be fed, I imagine. There’s bread left over from the morning. Take what thou wilt.” He pointed at the windowsill, where half a loaf of bread was wrapped in a napkin to keep it from the flies. Master Marlowe disappeared into the back room. A glimpse through the doorway showed him running a comb through his hair. He brushed the dust of the street from his doublet, polished the gilt
buttons carefully against his sleeve, and was off again without offering me a word of farewell.
I was not alone for long, however, before Mistress Stavesly came puffing up the stairs with a heavy straw mattress in her arms. I ran to help her drag it into the room, and we laid it out in a corner by the fireplace. Without a word beyond, “Wait thee,” she departed again, and came back with a pair of rough woolen blankets under one arm. This freed her hands to carry a wooden bowl of pottage and a leather tankard of ale.
“I do not suppose he’ll have thought to feed thee,” she said gruffly, waving away my thanks. “Off to the alehouse again, is he?”
“I know not,” I said, though my heart sank. Was
where he had gone? Was he a drunkard as well as a playmaker and a man who claimed to know in what shape the devil walked among us? “Have you known Master Marlowe long, mistress?”
“I know him not,” she said sternly. “He pays his rent each week, and I ask no more.” She looked at me, I thought, in disapproval. “What possessed him to take thee into service, I cannot imagine. But do not count on his good humor too far. He’s changeable as March wind.” Shaking her head, she made her way down the stairs.
Her words might be discouraging, but her pottage was
excellent, the oatmeal soft and thick, the chunks of mutton tender. And I was ravenous. Now I came to think of it, I had not eaten since Robin’s stolen loaf of bread that morning, back in the time I was still Rosalind Archer.
Rosalind Archer would have eaten her dinner at a table, with a cook to prepare it and a maid to serve. There would have been, perhaps, a joint of mutton, a cut of beef, or a capon stewed and savory. And her father and brother would have been there with her. She would not have crouched on the edge of a straw pallet, leery of sitting on the only stool in case Master Marlowe would think it a presumption, scouring the pottage bowl clean with chunks of bread and stuffing them into her mouth. Embarrassed, I sat up straight, wiped my face, and finished what was left of my food in a more seemly fashion. Because I was not what I had been, it did not follow that I must be an animal. I would eat as if I’d been taught manners. My father would not be ashamed of me, if he could see me.
Or would he? I set the empty bowl and tankard down on the floor and rubbed one hand at the back of my neck.
What will our father say when he sees thee?
Had Robin been right? Would my father be shocked beyond measure at the sight of me, shameless and immodest in my breeches and doublet? Would he think I had disgraced
myself to become the servant of a playmaker, a man who lied for profit? Would he condemn me for it? Would God?
I reached into my shirt and pulled a thin leather cord over my head. Attached to the cord, in a small linen bag, was my rosary.
I held the wooden beads, warm from the heat of my body, between my fingers and began to pray. “
Ave Maria, gratia plena….”
The words wrapped themselves around me, soft and comforting, like summer sunlight, like a fur-lined cloak in winter. “
Dominus tecum, benedicta tua….”
I had much need of grace today. I had lied, I had abandoned the name I’d been christened with, I had entered the service of a playmaker and a blasphemer. And since I did not know where to find a priest in London, I could not even confess and have my sins lifted off my heart. But as I prayed my way around the beads, I could only trust that God would understand. And so would my father. They would know that what I’d done, I’d done so that I could survive.
I was a Catholic at heart, even if that must stay secret, just as I was a woman under my breeches and doublet. My lies were only on the surface. They did not change the deepest truths. When I had prayed all fifty-five prayers, I tucked the rosary back underneath my shirt and waited
for my new master to return and tell me what he wished me to do.
Light faded from the window, and the sky outside turned gold, then rose, then purple, then black. And Master Marlowe still did not appear. At length I took off my shoes and doublet and unwrapped the bands around my breasts, gently rubbing the sore spots where the linen had chafed the tender skin. I hid the strips of cloth, along with the rosary, under the pallet and fell asleep listening for the sound of Master Marlowe’s footsteps on the stairs.
I never heard Master Marlowe come in that night. But when I woke in the morning, he was lying, facedown and snoring quietly, under the blankets of his bed.
The straw pallet had not been overly comfortable. I sat up, stiff and sore, rubbed my face, stretched, and began to consider the complicated matter of getting dressed. I had slept in my shirt and breeches, for modesty, and with Master Marlowe in the next chamber, I did not dare take off the shirt to wind the linen wrappings about my breasts again. He seemed thoroughly asleep, but he might wake at any moment, and the door between the rooms was not shut fully.
In the end I pulled my doublet over my head, stuffed the strips of linen inside it, and tucked my rosary back into the bag around my neck. Then I made my way downstairs. I passed the second floor, where Mistress Stavesly
slept, and the bakery, where the smell of fresh bread in the air was almost enough to chew and swallow. In the yard behind the building, I found what I had been hoping for—a privy. There, in the stinking darkness, I adjusted the wrappings to my satisfaction, then came outside, fully Richard once again.
And Richard needed to decide what to do. Master Marlowe had not looked likely to stir anytime soon, so I was obliged to set about my role as a playmaker’s servant without any guidance from him. My new master, as far as I could judge from yesterday, did not seem to be a patient man. If I wanted to stay in his service for even a brief time, it would be wise to prove myself worth my keep.
There were a few wooden buckets, I noticed, in one corner of the yard. Fetching water was surely a servant’s task. I found the public conduit near Bishopsgate, filled a bucket, and lugged it back, knocking the rim against my knee at every step and spilling water down into my shoe. I’d never thought much before about how heavy water was, and I felt a touch of remorse to think of the times I’d scolded Joan for her slowness when I sent her to the well.
In the lodgings once more, with Master Marlowe still snoring, I dipped my hands in the water and scrubbed my face. No soap; I would have to make do without.
What next? I looked around at the bare room and
rubbed the toe of my shoe over the gritty floorboards. The room had not been swept in weeks, surely. I went downstairs to beg a broom of Mistress Stavesly.
The big brick oven at the back of the bakery filled the shop with a heat that seemed solid, as if I’d walked into a wall. Mistress Stavesly was just sliding a batch of loaves on a long-handled wooden platter into the oven’s open mouth. She wore only a sleeveless bodice over her skirts, and sweat ran down her face from under her cap. “Thou’rt starting early to work,” she said in answer to my question. “Aye, take a broom and welcome. My daughter Moll can show thee. Here, Moll!” The girl who came shambling up in answer to the call was a head and more taller than I was, ghostly white from head to toe with flour. “Moll, show Richard where a broom is. She’s half-witted,” Mistress Stavesly explained to me. “But if thou’lt say anything twice or three times over, she’ll understand.”
Moll did not seem to mind the words. She only looked curiously and shyly at me from behind the tangles of dark hair that hung in her eyes.
“A broom, please?” I asked. She blinked, as if considering my outlandish request, and then brought me to a corner of the shop, where a broom of neatly trimmed twigs leaned on its bristles.
“I’m Moll,” she announced abruptly.
“Aye, I know it,” I answered. She was looking at me expectantly, and I realized what she wanted. “Oh, I am Richard. My thanks for the broom, Moll.” She beamed as if I’d given her a shilling.
I used the broom to knock cobwebs down from the slanted ceiling and shake the spiders outside, and then began on the floor. But as I swept under the table, I paused, and glanced cautiously into the other room. Master Marlowe slept on. I set the broom against the table and looked at the papers there.
No wonder Master Marlowe had wanted a servant who could write a fair hand. The sheets scattered about were closely covered in a spiky writing that would have been hard to make out even if half the words had not been heavily scored through, blotted, or smeared. I didn’t dare touch the papers; Master Marlowe might notice if they’d been rearranged. But one in particular caught my eye.
It was tucked under another page so that I could see only a corner, but it was not written in a language I had ever seen. Not English or French or Latin. Might it be Greek? Was Master Marlowe so learned? I bent closer to peer at a jumble that looked like bird tracks and worm castings. And then I remembered the symbols that the player Nick had chalked on the stage floor yesterday. That was a play, a fiction, an illusion. Was this truth? Was
Master Marlowe worse than a Protestant? Did he, like Faustus, practice black magic?
In the next room, the ropes beneath the mattress creaked. I jumped away from the table and snatched at the broom. When Master Marlowe appeared in the doorway, running both hands through his rumpled hair, I was industriously sweeping the dirt from the floor into the fireplace.
“Ah, Richard,” he said, yawning fit to crack his jaw and squinting as though the light hurt his eyes. He was still wearing his hose but nothing else. I fastened my eyes on the floor. “Hard at work, I see. Fetch some water, then.”
“There, sir.” Without looking up, I pointed at the bucket in the corner.
“Thou mayst be worth thy keep after all,” Master Marlowe said, as if surprised. “Fill up that basin, so I can wash.”
I filled the wooden bowl with water, found soap and linen towels where he told me to look for them, and kept my eyes studiously elsewhere as he knelt on the floor of his bedroom to scrub his face and hands clean and run handfuls of water through his hair. Shaking his wet head like a dog, Master Marlowe got to his feet and looked at me curiously. “What, boy, art ill? Thou’rt red as a poppy.”
I dreaded his sharp eyes, but I could not keep the heat
back from my cheeks. “Only a bit warm, sir,” I said feebly. This was a complication I had not thought of when I’d entered a gentleman’s service.
“Aye, ’twill be a hot day. Here.” Picking up his purse from where it lay on top of a heap of his clothing, he tossed me two pence. “Go downstairs and buy a loaf from Mistress Stavesly for breakfast. And some ale from the tavern on the corner. Enough for thyself as well.”
I must harden myself, I thought, as I seized two tankards off the shelf and made my escape. I must somehow learn to act as if the sight of a half-naked man was nothing new to me. Or Master Marlowe would surely start to wonder why his new servant boy blushed so easily.
To my relief, when I returned with the loaf of bread still warm in my hands, Master Marlowe was dressed, not in the magnificent velvet he had worn yesterday, but in a plain workaday doublet of dark green broadcloth, his wet hair pulled neatly back to the nape of his neck.
I need not have been so scrupulous about not disturbing Master Marlowe’s papers, for he simply swept them aside with one arm to clear a space on the table for the food. There was only the one stool, and I did not dare to claim a space, uninvited, at the table with my master. I took my bread and tankard of ale and sat on a corner of my pallet.
Master Marlowe was silent while he ate, the quick chatter of yesterday gone.
Changeable as March wind,
Mistress Stavesly had called him. I sat without speaking, so as not to disturb his mood, chewing the creamy yellow manchet bread with appreciation. It was fine and soft enough that it needed no butter to sweeten it.
“Well, then,” Master Marlowe said when his meal was over, and he got up from the table. “Let me see thee prove thy boast.”
I swallowed my last mouthful of bread hastily. My boast? I’d hardly said a word all morning. But when he nodded at the stool he had been sitting on, I understood what he meant.
Master Marlowe did not spare money on his work, I thought as I seated myself. The quills scattered about looked the best, made from the third or fourth wing feathers of a goose, and the paper he scribbled on so carelessly had probably cost two or three shillings for half a ream. I did not see the page with the strange symbols I had noticed earlier.
“Write this out for me,” Master Marlowe said, pushing a sheet of paper over the table. I picked up a quill and frowned to find the point crushed and dull. A clerk must respect his pens, my father always said, as a carpenter respects his tools. A blunt knife is more likely to slip and
cut you than a sharp one, and a blunt pen is more likely to skip and catch on the paper, scattering ink far and wide.
Luckily there was a small ivory-handled knife among the clutter on the tabletop. I was conscious of Master Marlowe watching critically as I cut the pen to a fresh, sharp point, but I did not let him hurry me. He propped a hip against the table and folded his arms while I licked my fingers, rubbed the pen’s tip to soften it, and uncorked the tiny lead bottle.
The smell of the ink, sharp and bitter and black, made tears sting behind my eyes for just a moment. I could almost hear my father’s voice, as if he stood behind me: “Good, i’faith, very good, Rosalind…” I blinked and looked over at the scribbled sheet of manuscript Master Marlowe had given me.
The first line was a speech for a character named Dumaine. I felt a chill creep into my heart as I saw what Master Marlowe expected me to write, and looked up from the page to find his steady eye on me.
“What is the play to be called, sir?” I asked, amazed to hear the smooth tone of my own voice.
The Massacre at Paris,
” Master Marlowe answered.
The Massacre. The time of horror, some twenty years ago, when French Catholics had murdered their Protestant neighbors in the streets.
I put my eyes back on the fresh, clean sheet of paper before me and steadied the pen in my hand. Did he know? Was he watching to see if my cheek would grow pale or my hand would tremble? I bit down on the inside of my lip and put the tip of the pen to the page. The ink flowed easily, the letters black and neat. I moved my hand slowly and smoothly, listening to the faint rasp of the quill against the paper, and looked back at the words I had written.
DUMAINE: I swear by this to be unmerciful.
ANJOU: I am disguised, and none knows who I am,
And therefore mean to murder all I meet.
So this was what he thought of us—that we, the faithful, were murderers and traitors, thirsting for the blood of innocent Protestants. But I kept my face expressionless, my hand steady. If this were a trap, I would betray nothing. If it were no trap—if Master Marlowe truly had no idea what faith I cherished—then I must not give him the slightest hint.
“Let me see,” said Master Marlowe, holding out a hand and snapping his fingers for the paper.
I blew gently on the wet ink, still glistening, and picked the page up by the edges to hand it to him. He took it
delicately and raised an eyebrow while he studied it.
“So thou toldst truth. Where didst learn to write such a fair hand?”
“My father taught me, sir.” My voice, respectful and mild, sounded like someone else’s in my ears. What would my father have said, had he known that the pen he’d taught me to hold would write such words of my fellow Catholics?
“Well enough. I think I’ll keep thee, Richard.” Master Marlowe waved me off the stool and sat down himself. “When I’m done today, thou’lt write out the scenes I’ve finished. It will save me hiring a clerk for it.” He shuffled the papers on the table, found what he was looking for, and began to scrawl on a fresh sheet, pressing down so hard that my nicely cut pen was reduced to a shapeless blob in an instant. I watched him for a moment, but he seemed to have forgotten that I was in the room.
After a while I took up Mistress Stavesly’s broom again.
I swept the bedroom and straightened the bed and emptied the bowl of water out the window. Then, reluctantly, I picked up the chamber pot. A few weeks ago, I would never have touched such an object. But now…
Now, I told myself firmly, I had no choice. But still, I could not keep my nose from wrinkling as the stinking contents of the pot followed the wash water out into the
street. I wiped my hands on my doublet and turned thankfully to more pleasant tasks, picking up Master Marlowe’s clothes from the floor. The buttons on his velvet doublet clinked softly together as I brushed and folded it and laid it, along with his breeches and hose and linen shirt and collar, away in the chest. I wondered if I could find a rag to dust with.
I jumped. “Yes, master?” I came into the doorway between the two rooms to find Master Marlowe scowling at me.
“Thou’lt fidget me beyond endurance. Go away.”
“Yes, master.” I hesitated. “When should I return?”
“An hour. Two. What thou wilt.” He turned his attention back to the paper on the table, but I was bold enough to speak again.
“May I have your leave to visit my father, sir?”
“Thou hast my leave to visit the devil, so thou dost it elsewhere than here,” he said impatiently. “Stay!” I had started for the door, but he got up suddenly and stalked into the bedchamber. When he came back, he tossed something to me, something small and round that flashed in the light as it flew through the air. I caught it between my hands. It was a shilling.
“An advance on thy wages,” Master Marlowe said,
sitting back down. “Thou’lt need it to give to the jailer. Take it and begone.”
I snatched up Mistress Stavesly’s broom and all but ran out the door before his abrupt generosity could reverse itself.
Mistress Stavesly lifted her eyebrows when I returned the broom and asked her the way to Newgate Prison. But she told me how to find it, and kept a customer waiting to be sure that I understood her directions. Eagerly I set off into the London streets.
Already everything seemed less strange, the crowds less threatening. My new clothing, which had made me feel so bare and vulnerable yesterday, in truth rendered me nearly invisible. I was just another shabby servant boy in a city full of them. No one paid me the slightest heed.
I made my way down Bishopsgate Street, as Mistress Stavesly had told me. But where Threadneedle Street branched off to the southwest, I hesitated.