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Authors: M. J. Trow

Tags: #Fiction - Historical, #Mystery, #Tudors, #16th Century, #England/Great Britain

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BOOK: Traitor's Storm
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‘I will admit that I suggested this play to Henslowe,’ Marlowe said. ‘I also admit that I felt sorry for Thomas, always going on about his play. I thought, what with one thing and another these days, that a play called the Spanish Tragedy couldn’t help but pull the crowds.’

‘It has pulled the crowds,’ Sledd said. If you couldn’t say something nice, just tell a tiny bit of the truth, that was what the great Ned Sledd had taught his protégé and sticking to that had got him through some sticky times.

Marlowe sat up straight now and leaned back, looking Sledd in the face. ‘The crowds. The jeering. The rotten fruit. I won’t tell you what is lurking at the back of this gallery, but let’s just say that when they get to cleaning this bit of the place they will need a big bucket and a sturdy shovel.’ He sighed again.

‘Well, never mind, Kit,’ Sledd said, risking a matey punch on the playwright’s shoulder. ‘You’ll have something for us soon, I have no doubt.’

Silence.

‘Kit?’

‘I was writing, yes.’

‘And?’

‘It promises to be my best yet.’

‘Not the play with Dr Dee in it?’

‘No. No, that one will have to wait. It must be … special. No, this one is set on an island. A strange man is the main character, foreign, enigmatic. But I can’t quite see him, I just don’t seem to be able to get it right. And meanwhile, we have … this.’ He waved his arm to the stage where the rehearsal was stumbling along.

‘I meant to ask you about that,’ Sledd said. ‘Why are we rehearsing still?’

‘Henslowe asked me to make some cuts. He made a list last night of when the vegetables started to fly and asked me to rewrite the scenes.’ He gave a shrug. ‘Tom Kyd should be doing that, but nobody knows where he is just now.’

‘Travelling’s all I heard.’

‘Yes, well, that’s not very helpful when there are rotten apples flying through the air. Anyway, what did you want me for?’

Sledd put a hand to his mouth, stricken. ‘Sorry, Kit. I was looking for you for …’

‘Don’t fret yourself.’ A cold voice came from the back of the gallery. ‘I’m here now.’

Marlowe didn’t turn his head. ‘Nicholas.’

‘Kit.’

Sledd spoke low and fast. ‘Master Faunt is here,’ he muttered.

‘Thank you,’ Faunt said drily. ‘Now, if Master Marlowe and I could have some privacy.’ Tom Sledd started to sidle back the way he had come.

‘Before you go,’ Faunt said, in the special tone he had which could stop a glacier in its tracks. ‘You might want to bring a bucket and a shovel when you are back here next. There is …’

‘I know,’ Sledd said, shaking his head as he reached the steps down into the groundlings’ pit. ‘I know. How they even get the pig up the stairs, I will never understand.’

TWO

T
he two men walked out of the Rose and strolled down Maiden Lane. They leaned over the wall of the Bear Pit and watched for a few moments as Master Sackerson rolled this way and that in a shallow puddle. The bear eventually got up enough momentum to regain his feet, shook himself in a shower of muddy drops and ambled off to the shelter of an overhanging canvas, green with slime and half off its supporting poles.

Faunt flicked a finger at the animal. ‘I’m surprised he’s still here,’ he remarked.

Marlowe shrugged. ‘No reason he shouldn’t be, is there?’ he asked. ‘He’s Master Henslowe’s favourite person, anyway, so I think anyone wanting to remove him would have a fight on their hands.’

‘Hmm.’ Faunt wiped an invisible speck of dirt from the front of his doublet and resumed his walk down to the main thoroughfare at the end of the lane. He needed somewhere warmer and drier; would this rain never end?

Marlowe caught him up with a hop and a skip. ‘Nicholas,’ he said, ‘you didn’t come all this way to discuss bears.’

‘No. But I won’t talk in this drizzle. Let’s get in the dry somewhere. A tavern would be best; a tavern with a fire burning better still.’

At the crossroads, Marlowe turned left and then sharp left again through a low doorway. It was like entering another world. A dark, fusty world perhaps, that smelled of old ale and older tobacco, but one that was warm, dry and, most importantly from Faunt’s point of view, apparently empty; the sign of the Angel, at Southwark. Looking into the gloom, a figure was just discernible standing behind a rough trestle table. The figure didn’t speak but took a step forward and resolved into a man of no particular age, with a dirty apron wrapped around his middle. He was polishing a beaker with a cloth even dirtier than the apron and yet much cleaner than the beaker. Marlowe held up two fingers and the man replied with a guttural, wordless sound.

Faunt looked around and nodded. ‘Quiet,’ he remarked.

‘And no wonder,’ Marlowe said, taking a seat with his back to the fire. Faunt looked at him with a wry smile. Marlowe knew full well that the projectioner never sat with his back to a door or a window. Faunt took the chair and turned it through ninety degrees, sitting slantways to the table, his long, elegantly stockinged legs stretched out to the fire. ‘The ale is awful. The wine is worse. It’s filthy. But the fire is warm and the innkeeper stupid, so we can talk as privately here as anywhere and in reasonable comfort.’

The innkeeper, stupid or not, was fast enough and was at the table with two brimming beakers. He also slammed down a plate of gingerbread, cut into cubes and dusted with powdered sugar. Faunt looked dubiously at the drink and the food but good breeding precluded him from commenting until the man had gone. He then pushed the beaker and the plate away. Marlowe took a swig from his drink and a bite of the gingerbread.

‘I thought you said the ale and wine were bad,’ Faunt said.

‘They are. The cider is excellent, though, and the gingerbread some of the best in London.’ Marlowe smiled at Faunt. ‘You forget that Ned Alleyn is of the company up the lane and where Ned Alleyn drinks there are always perks to be had. Especially from innkeepers’ daughters who like to keep Ned Alleyn’s friends sweet.’ Marlowe raised his beaker to a trembling curtain at the back of the inn and was rewarded with a distant giggle, followed by a grunted curse from the innkeeper. The playwright pushed the plate back towards Faunt. ‘Try some. It’s just right.’

Faunt took a tiny nibble from just one corner and nodded. ‘Are you tired of London yet, Kit?’ he asked, suddenly getting down to business.

Marlowe, mouth full of gingerbread, shook his head. ‘No,’ he said, swallowing. ‘Why should I be? I admit this play is heavy going at the moment, but I am writing one of my own which … well, why lie to you, Master Faunt? I am going to be writing one soon, but things keep getting in the way of my beginning.’

‘What kind of thing?’ Faunt asked, interested to know what this man of fire and air might be doing that had passed his intelligencers by.

Marlowe looked up at him over the rim of his beaker. ‘You, for one,’ he said.

Faunt spread his hands and tried to look innocent, something that he found increasingly difficult to do convincingly. ‘I?’

Marlowe leaned forward. ‘You didn’t come to the theatre looking for me just to say hello and join me in a drink, Master Faunt. I have felt the hot breath of too many of your intelligencers following me around to think you had forgotten me. What is it you want me to do? I want to warn you that I will not be going abroad for you in a hurry. News from Spain does not make me anxious to get any nearer to that spider’s web – and anyway, in this weather, I don’t want to do a Channel crossing.’

Faunt looked injured. ‘A Channel crossing? Heaven forfend, Kit. No, no, although … a boat may be needed.’ He leaned back and patted the table rhythmically with his fingers for a moment, thinking. This man was too tricky for his own good, sometimes. He had almost let the cat out of the bag and there was no way of knowing which way the animal might jump.

‘Ireland?’ Marlowe broke the silence. That Godforsaken place was the graveyard of many a good man.

‘No, no, not Ireland. Governor Parrott is keeping the lid on things there, at least for the time being. No, it’s much nearer than that.’

‘Is this a guessing game?’ Marlowe said, a little testily. ‘Well, how about … the Isle of Dogs.’

Faunt narrowed his eyes. ‘Let’s not be frivolous, Kit.’ He motioned him nearer and leaned in himself. He dropped his voice so that the distant innkeeper would have no chance of hearing, even if he wanted to. ‘I’m talking about the Isle of Wight. One of our men is … missing. Perhaps not missing, but certainly unaccounted for, as we speak. He was investigating … well, you don’t need to know that now. If you can’t find him, that will be the time to tell you more.’

‘Rubbish!’ Marlowe leaned back and spoke at a normal level. ‘How can I possibly find him if …’ He stopped, as any man would who suddenly felt the point of a dagger pricking the inside of his thigh.

Faunt raised a sardonic eyebrow.

‘… if I don’t know what he was doing there,’ Marlowe continued, in a whisper.

‘He was working for Sir Francis,’ Faunt said, ‘and that really is all you need to know. He was working for George Carey at the castle at Carisbrooke. His story was that he was a garden designer but we may have blundered there. As far as I know he didn’t know a dogrose from an actual dog, so it may be that his cover has been blown.’

‘I don’t know anything about gardens either,’ Marlowe protested, ‘so I can’t be his replacement.’

‘No, no,’ Faunt said. ‘Because he might be just absent, rather than missing, we won’t draw attention to it by replacing him. I thought you could pretend to be a writer …’ He saw the look on Marlowe’s face and quickly redirected the rest of the sentence: ‘Which of course you really are, so the cover is perfect in that respect. No, I thought – that is, Sir Francis thought – you could go down as a writer looking for inspiration on an island.’

That was so near to the truth that Marlowe was open-mouthed. Perhaps he had not spotted all of the intelligencers after all.

‘It’s a peculiar place, the Wight,’ Faunt went on. ‘Odd people at every turn and so you might even find inspiration. The supernatural, all that rubbish is a bit up your street as I recall.’

‘History,’ Marlowe corrected him. ‘History, not magick.’

‘Well, make your own cover story,’ Faunt said dismissively, taking a final swig of cider and a bite of gingerbread. He glanced over to the window and peered out. ‘I do believe the rain is easing off. I have had your man pack you a bag. He’ll be at the theatre with your horse about now, I should think.’

Marlowe smiled. That was pure Faunt. The man always assumed and it never made an ass out of him.

Walsingham’s right-hand man stood up and wrapped his cloak over his arm. ‘Keep in touch, of course. There will be a boat waiting at the Hamble this time tomorrow.’ He waved at the twitching curtain and was rewarded by another gale of giggling. ‘The cider
is
good,’ he remarked. ‘Not something I would usually drink but very … appley. Good day.’ And he was gone.

Marlowe swilled back the last of his drink and smiled. It was a good batch. The last one had had rather more rat in it than he really enjoyed, but that was the thing about cider. It was always a surprise.

Marlowe’s horse was indeed waiting at the Rose but of his servant there was no sign. He always had other fish to fry and clearly didn’t want to risk being inveigled into accompanying Marlowe in his trip south. Tom Sledd held the animal’s head and he was looking far from happy. Apart from anything else, the man was a stage manager, for God’s sake. He held horses for no man.

Marlowe took the reins and lifted the flap of the bag thrown across the cantle. It didn’t seem very big for an extended stay, but he would doubtless manage. He nodded to the stage manager, who had transferred his grip to a stirrup leather. He still hadn’t spoken. ‘Tom,’ he said, with a smile, and tried to walk the horse a few steps, but Sledd was like an ox in the furrow. Marlowe had seen him in this mood before. He wasn’t often moved to anger, but a twitching nerve in his cheek was giving it away.

‘Kit,’ he replied, through clenched teeth. Then, as if the words had built up so that they overflowed the dam of his tongue, ‘I thought you were finished with all this. I thought you were a playwright now, that you would stay here, help … help with …’ He looked down angrily at the ground and kicked a muddy stone viciously. He let go of the stirrup and stepped back.

Marlowe needed to get away, but not before he had put his friend’s mind at rest. ‘Tom, I’ll just be away a day or so. I need to go … to somewhere and do … something. Oh, God’s teeth, Tom, you know I can’t tell you anything. I’ll be back soon, that will have to be good enough.’

‘But, the play!’

Marlowe smiled. ‘Ah, the play. I thought it wasn’t me you were worried about. Get Master Shaxsper to give you a hand.’

‘He won’t work with Ned,’ Sledd said with a sigh.

‘Tell Ned he has to behave. Apologize to Will over whatever it is he has done. Tell him otherwise you’ll replace him with Burbage.’

‘Burbage won’t work with Shaxsper.’

Marlowe leaned his forehead on the saddle. He could stay and sort out the shambles at the Rose or he could go off for a few days on a nice, quiet island, staying in a castle, which sounded a cut above his normal lodging. He could have a brief look round for the missing ladies’ man, Hasler, and then come home. By then, any number of situations may have resolved themselves. If his prayers were answered – should anyone be listening to answer them – then the whole boiling would have fallen down a hole in the ground and they would have to start all over again. Perhaps Tom Kyd would have come back from his travels with a new play that somebody actually liked. He drew a deep breath, stepped back half a pace and sprang into the saddle. He looked down at the stage manager. ‘Goodbye, Tom. Expect me when you see me.’ And he walked his horse down Maiden Lane and trotted through the half-timbered suburbs that hugged the road to the south.

It seemed a long time since Christopher Marlowe, Bachelor of Arts, Cantabriensis, had started out on a road like this. And when was that, exactly? When was the first step of this long journey? When he had splashed through the puddles of the Dark Entry on his way to school in the shadow of the great cathedral? When he had jumped on the back of a passing cart out of Cambridge and taken an apple offered to him by Francis Walsingham? For three long years he had been on that road to London and every time something had got in his way. And here he was, leaving it again. Just how insane was he? Nor’ by nor-west.

BOOK: Traitor's Storm
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