Authors: M. J. Trow
Tags: #Fiction - Historical, #Mystery, #Tudors, #16th Century, #England/Great Britain
She leapt to her feet and he wasn’t sure whether she was planning to hug him or fell him where he stood. In the event, she did neither but what she did do was far more disconcerting. She burst into noisy tears, not the kind of elegant, silvery tears cried by her sister-in-law when the occasion demanded it, but huge, fat tears, snot bubbling from her nose, her mouth set in a hot, red circle of pain.
‘I am so lonely, Master Marlowe, looking after Georgie all by myself.’ She gave an enormous sniff and, picking up the edge of Marlowe’s swaddling, blew her nose with a sound to wake the dead. She put a hot, wet hand on Marlowe’s arm. ‘I feel much better for our little chat. You are not the Devil incarnate after all.’ And she stumbled to the door, almost colliding with a small maid, carrying a pitcher of hot water along to George Carey’s chamber.
The woman recovered herself at once and slapped the girl round the head. ‘Is that water hot?’ she asked.
‘Yes’m,’ the girl said, holding it out.
Avis Carey dipped what on another woman would be called her little finger in the water and slapped the girl again. ‘Have you no sense?’ she yelled at her. ‘Sir George could have severely scalded himself in water as hot as that. Go and get some hot water that is … not so hot.’
The maid was not a brave woman, but she knew the drill. ‘Where shall I take this very hot water then, m’m?’ she asked.
Avis Carey looked around and met the startled eyes of Christopher Marlowe, still standing wrapped in linen in the middle of the chamber floor. She pointed. ‘Give it to Master Marlowe,’ she said. ‘But …’
The maid turned, sensing another instruction. ‘Yes, m’m?’
‘Tell him to be careful. It’s hot.’
The maid couldn’t wait to get down into the kitchens and soon had a rapt audience.
‘And there he stood – ooh, he’s got lovely legs. In the altogether he was, the bed all mazzled up and that and there she stood in the gallery and told’un to be careful!’
The cook gave the poor girl yet another slap, to balance the ones she had already received. The story had sounded quite believable until that last bit. She could tell a tale, could Ester, and no mistake. Mistress Avis, worrying about anyone but her brother! It would be a cold day in hell before that ever happened.
Diego de Valdez was not a happy man. For days now, his Castilian galleons had wallowed in the troughs south of Biscay, the wind against them and the rain lashing the slippery decks. He stood on the quarter, the helmsman wrestling with the wheel beside him. His orders, decorations and armour lay below and he was huddled under a rough cloak of the type the shepherds wore in the high Sierra del Escudo, cursing the wind, the rain, his cousin (whose fault, of course, all this was). He did it softly, however, because His Majesty had given implicit instructions that there was to be no blasphemy on board the ships of his great crusade against England.
battled through the grey, foam-flecked waters, groaning and shuddering every time she hit a large wave. It had taken the Armada two days to make fifteen sea miles and already the stench in the ship’s hold was unbearable. His notary had told him that the Candia wine had gone off and somebody must have miscalculated; they were already running low on chickpeas. Today was Thursday, so the admiral had six ounces of bacon and two ounces of rice to look forward to. Every inch the professional, he refused to eat anything his men did not. He chewed his pine kernel and watched the ships of his squadron ploughing the churning waters behind him, their sails and flags bright with the heraldry of Spain and the Papacy. The castles and lions of Castile flew proud and defiant, on every spar and every strut in his squadron. There they were, the
San Juan Bautista
Santiago el Mayor
, their decks crammed with soldiers hurling their half-digested rice over the side, longing to be on dry land again. Well, Valdez thought to himself as he turned back into the wind, their day would come. Just as his would when he blew El Draque out of the water. If only the damned wind would turn. If only spring would come.
rocked gently in the harbour along the Medina. The day’s market was almost over and Henry Skirrow had places to be. He hurried up the rope ladder, his pattens clattering on the swaying boards, and disappeared below decks to where Master Vaughan sat with his companions. Skirrow took off his hat, passed the letter to Vaughan and waited.
The man slit the seal carefully and read the contents. He passed it to Thomas Page who in turn passed it to Edmund Denny. Both men shrugged.
‘It’s all about a play,’ Page said, helping himself to another goblet of Rhenish. ‘No mystery there.’
‘All that’s on top,’ Vaughan muttered. ‘What’s he
‘John, you’re dreaming,’ Denny said. ‘You’d swear your bloody anchor chain was out to get you. Some people have other fish to fry. I’ve heard of this Marlowe. He’s a scribbler, poet, playwright, university wit, pain in the arse. He’s no threat to us.’
‘That’s as may be,’ Vaughan said. ‘But I’ve met the man. At the castle the other night. He watches your every move. And his eyes … it’s like he can see into your soul.’
Denny gave Page an old-fashioned look. He took the letter back. ‘It’s just asking this fellow … what’s his name? Tom Sledd. It’s just asking him to come down and put on a play at the castle. Mind you, that’s typical, isn’t it? The most powerful navy in the world is on the way to crush us and the Captain-General of the Wight is going to the theatre.’ He shook his head. ‘Be afraid,’ he murmured. ‘Be very afraid.’
‘It’s too pat,’ Vaughan said, taking a longer swig of his wine than was strictly necessary. ‘First Hasler, now Marlowe. They’re on to us, gentlemen.’
Denny sighed. ‘Tell him, Tom, will you?’
Page leaned forward and patted Vaughan’s arm. The man could patronize for England. ‘We took care of Hasler, didn’t we?’
Vaughan was not placated.
‘So Marlowe won’t be a problem either.’ Page went on regardless. ‘Trust me. I’ve seen his type before.’
‘Have you?’ Vaughan said, gnawing his lip. ‘I’m not so sure. Skirrow, when you get to London, be sure and find out all you can about this Sledd. Who he knows. What he does. You have Sir George’s writ?’
Skirrow patted his doublet. ‘And his expenses, Master Vaughan … Not that they go very far these days, of course.’
Vaughan sighed and rummaged in a drawer in his bureau. He threw the man a purse which he caught with all his years of experience. Henry Skirrow had been a servant of two masters for more years than he cared to remember.
‘What are Sir George’s instructions? Are you to bring this Sledd down in person?’
‘If possible, sir.’
‘Good.’ Vaughan’s mind was racing. ‘Good. But when you do, bring him to the Hole and send me word. On no account is he to meet Marlowe until one of us has had a little chat with him. Clear?’
‘As St Thomas’s bell, Master Vaughan.’ Skirrow bowed. He reclaimed Marlowe’s letter and was gone. He could reaffix the seal later.
Francis Walsingham was at Placentia that Sunday. He had taken divine service with the Queen and was walking in the garden watching the ladies at their archery.
‘Her Majesty not shooting today?’ Nicholas Faunt was strolling with him, wearing his Sunday best in case Her Majesty should suddenly turn a corner and come upon him.
‘Gout,’ Walsingham said. He glanced around quickly. ‘And you didn’t hear that from me. Thanks for coming, Nicholas.’
Faunt smiled. When the Queen’s Spymaster called him by his Christian name, there was always trouble in the wind. It had to be said that Walsingham was not quite his old self. His legs were stiff with rheumatism and he was having difficulty seeing sometimes by candlelight. He had caught a glimpse of himself in a mirror the week before and thought he looked older than Lord Burghley, who in turn was older than Methuselah.
‘Is something amiss, Sir Francis?’ Faunt asked him. He would walk through fire for the Spymaster, but he was not about to let him know that.
Walsingham again checked the grounds. The laughter of the ladies and the soft thud of arrows hitting their mark were fading in the distance and no breeze disturbed the hedgerows, clipped and trimmed into obedience by the royal gardeners. ‘You remember Fenner’s dispatch from Lisbon?’
‘An Armada of four hundred sail and fifty galleys, provisioned with more bacon, fish, cheese and rice than we have in the whole of England. Oh, and God’s on their side, of course.’
The Puritan in Francis Walsingham wanted to reach out and grab his subordinate by the fancy-ruffed throat, but he knew Faunt was just trying to make light of a bad situation.
‘Well, we’ve heard from our man in Finisterre since then.’
‘Oseley?’ Faunt chuckled. ‘He’s usually reliable.’
Walsingham nodded his agreement. ‘Only four galleys, apparently.’
‘Oh, that’s good,’ Faunt said, but saw that his master’s face was as thunderous as usual. ‘Isn’t it?’
‘They won’t be able to use their galleys until they’re in the Thames anyway, so the number they bring is irrelevant. I’ve told Oseley to get himself back home and get on the
‘With Drake?’ Faunt raised an eyebrow. ‘Is that wise?’
Walsingham stopped in his tracks. ‘Are you saying there’s something … sinister … about Francis Drake?’ he asked.
‘Heaven forfend!’ Faunt raised his hands. ‘You know my views, Sir Francis. The man isn’t just a peasant; he’s a rogue and a scoundrel. I don’t envy the Lord Admiral trying to keep him in line.’
Walsingham let that go. ‘Anyway, there’s more news. Reading.’
‘What about it?’
‘The mayor and corporation have found a cache of Popish books.’
‘Ah,’ said Faunt, straight-faced. ‘The enemy within.’
Walsingham nodded. ‘The question is, how far within? Get yourself there, Faunt. Usual discreet enquiries.’
‘Very good, sir. Oh, by the way, any news of Kit Marlowe?’
‘Machiavel?’ Walsingham said coldly. ‘No, nothing. That man is on his own.’
‘Must you go?’ she purred, stretching out to stroke his chest.
‘One of your husband’s field days, Bet,’ he said, smiling at her. He took her hand in his and kissed her fingertips. ‘I
a centoner, after all; you know, responsibilities?’
‘Oh, you boys,’ she scolded him, breaking away and sitting up in bed. ‘Why can’t you live for today? Tomorrow will take care of itself.’
He sat next to her, still naked as the dawn flooded the chamber. ‘It won’t take care of itself. We have to take care of it.’
She pulled his pillows over to her side of the bed and plumped them up behind her, flopping back on them and looking up at him through a tangle of curls. ‘Now you’re beginning to
like George,’ she said with a pout.
‘What about tonight?’ he asked her, rummaging in the press for his clothes.
‘I can’t. I’m due at Cecily’s. You know what a bastard Henry is.’
‘Yes,’ he sighed, ‘and I’ve got to face him in an hour.’
‘Oh, Matt,’ she said and heaved herself off her nest of pillows and rolled out of bed, crossing the room to him. ‘Couldn’t you delay, just a little?’ She ran her hands over his arms and shoulders, grinding her hips against him. He looked down at her and smiled, kissing her full on the lips. ‘Just a little,’ he said, stroking her breast. ‘You’re a wicked, wicked woman, Bet Carey.’
The sky was bright to the west but it had rained during the night and the canvas of the tents was sodden and dark. Two hundred damp, dispirited soldiers had been turfed out of their slumbers by the bugle call and now did their best to look like a fighting force. They were pikemen from the flat marshes of Essex and had been in the Wight for a week. They had passed to the command of Sir Henry Meux of Kingston who sat his horse that morning on St George’s Down, watching them form up.
‘Not exactly the London Trained Bands, are they?’ he grunted to Robert Dillington. The master of Knighton had to agree. He had seen the London men at the funeral of Philip Sidney a couple of years before and had to admit, they were impressive; tall men in white coats stitched with the scarlet cross of St George and the upright sword.
In front of these gentlemen today the Essex men looked a sorry bunch. Their doublets and Venetians were heavy with the night’s rain and only their sergeants had backs and breasts; the rest wore no armour at all. At least each man had a pike, a twelve-foot pole of ash topped with murderous iron. The thing was six feet shorter than the weapons of Spain, but it would have to do.
‘Oh, Holy Mother of Our Lord, look at that!’ Meux jerked his head to his left. ‘Georgie-boy’s dressed up today!’ Trotting over the rise on a tall bay gelding came the Captain of the Wight, gilded armour from his neck to his thighs that could have bought the Essex contingent twice over. The ruff he usually wore was replaced by a linen collar and his head was encased in a Spanish-style burgonet, complete with nodding scarlet plume. A brace of wheel-locks bounced at his saddle-bow and a rapier hilt twinkled in the morning’s brightness.
Dillington looked down on his own buff coat and plain breeches and felt decidedly outclassed. ‘I’m sorry I bothered now,’ he said. ‘Matilda said, “You’ve got to look the part, Robbie. Dress like a soldier.” What does she know, eh? Oh good,’ he muttered, ‘Georgie’s brought his band with him.’
Marching behind Carey came a solid phalanx of musicians, drums beating and fifes trilling, their uniforms bright with coloured ribbons and streamers. Beyond that came the feudal levy, the men of the West Wight and the south, the Militia of Yarmouth and Richard Turvey’s men from Cowes.
‘Does your heart good to see it, doesn’t it?’ Meux said out of the corner of his mouth. ‘The king of Spain must be shitting himself.’ Then he looked up, pinned on a smile and waved. ‘Good morning, George!’ He doffed his cap and half bowed in the saddle. Dillington did the same. George Carey halted his horse alongside them as his units stood still and the music, mercifully, stopped.
The governor leaned forward. ‘Salute, gentlemen,’ he reminded them quietly. ‘This is a field day. We’re not at Court now.’