Authors: M. J. Trow
Tags: #Fiction - Historical, #Mystery, #Tudors, #16th Century, #England/Great Britain
Marlowe delved into his bag, but allowed his hand to come up empty. ‘And you are?’ he said, a tiny tight smile on his lips.
‘Did I not say?’ The man struck his forehead with an inky palm, leaving just the slightest imprint there, like a fledgling bruise. ‘Martin is my name.’
Marlowe clenched his teeth and held his breath. Please, he prayed to all his Muses and even God, for good measure, please don’t let his name be Martin Martin. He couldn’t bear it.
‘Martin Carey. I am Sir George’s nephew, I suppose, but so many times removed that it makes no matter. Only the name remains to say there is any relationship at all. We’re all cousins under the skin, aren’t we? To prevent confusion, everyone calls me Master Martin and I do very well like that. They usually keep me up there.’ He pointed behind him. ‘I have my own office in the keep, so it’s aptly named. Gives me peace and quiet for the world of numbers.’
Marlowe handed over his letter and then shook the man’s hand. He was a pleasant enough looking fellow, with corn-coloured hair that flopped limply over his eye and was constantly being tucked behind his ear. His inky fingers had dyed it a very faint blue. His eyes were hooded and were constantly moving up and down, searching for an invisible row of figures to add or subtract. He was around Marlowe’s height, but had no substance to him. A gust of wind would blow him away.
‘I met a woman at the house …’ Marlowe began.
‘A woman?’ Martin said, looking at him with one eye cocked, like a sparrow after a worm. ‘Big. Wearing some kind of apron?’ He sketched the garment across his front.
‘That’s her. Speaks like so!’ Marlowe dropped his voice almost an octave and the comptroller laughed and nodded.
‘You have met the Lady Avis Carey. You have lived to tell the tale, which I believe is not something that can be promised to everyone. She doesn’t let many past her door.’
‘Avis? That is Latin for bird,’ Marlowe mused. ‘I wonder which one.’
‘Not a peacock, that’s for sure,’ Martin said. ‘But she can’t guard her brother’s door against the Queen’s seal, so let us go and see if we can find someone more congenial in the house. There are plenty more to choose from; you were just very unfortunate.’
‘If she is Sir George’s sister, why is she opening the door? Surely, she has people to do that for her?’
‘Any number, but she is like Cerberus; she guards her gate well. She doesn’t think that anyone can do it quite as well as she.’
‘And the apron?’
Martin laughed and ushered Marlowe ahead of him towards the door. ‘No one can sweep like Avis, cook like Avis, mend, make beds or for all I know dip tallow like Avis. She is a whirlwind, but like the whirlwind nothing is done well, just thrown into the air. We have to have twice the staff we could otherwise do with if we didn’t have Avis. One lot to be shouted at by her for their idleness, and one lot to go around behind her setting things right.’
Marlowe leaned nearer. ‘Is she quite … normal?’ He was thinking of Daft Harry and how he could come here for lessons.
Again, the comptroller laughed. ‘Of course not. No one is normal here. I thought that was why you had come, to get ideas for a play!’
Marlowe shrugged. ‘I need people in the audience to recognize my characters, if only a little,’ he said. ‘I may need to look elsewhere.’ Martin reached around him and pushed open the door and he looked in, taking in the luxurious interior. ‘But here will do nicely for now,’ he said, stepping in and putting down his bag.
He looked round to see Martin watching him, a proud smile on his face. ‘It is lovely, isn’t it? I always enjoy seeing people’s first reaction.’ A huge ancient fireplace stood to one side of the room, no logs in the grate for all it was a bleak, cold spring and elegant tapestries from the Gobelin works hung between the long windows opposite. Marlowe smiled to see Dido, Queen of Carthage, rolling in the woven embrace of Aeneas, arrayed in martial splendour under a canopy of roses.
‘This was the Great Hall,’ Martin explained, ‘built by Isabella de Fortibus herself.’
Marlowe realized he was supposed to be impressed and whistled through his teeth.
‘She was the last independent ruler of the Wight,’ Martin told him proudly, clearly as much of a history bore as he was with figures. He glanced over his shoulder and reached out an arm to Marlowe, shepherding him on. ‘But don’t let’s linger here. I can hear Avis in the distance and she’s getting closer.’
Sure enough, there was a distant hooting, like a bullock lost in the fog and calling for its fellows. The deep mooing was definitely getting louder and without further ado, the two men ran for the stairs and by the time Lady Avis reached the hall all that was left of them was some dust settling out of the weak sunbeam that lit the second landing.
Although Marlowe’s room was tucked away in one of the furthest gable ends, it was still luxurious by anyone’s standards. The bed was goose down and the drapes were heavy and clean. A small table had been placed under the window, with a pile of fresh paper, some uncut quills and a bottle of ink, with the wax still on the stopper. Clearly, someone could housekeep in this place, even if it wasn’t Avis. Unpacking was the work of moments and the playwright lifted out shirts and a spare doublet in one pile and arranged them in the press. He picked up his bag and looked around for somewhere to put it out of the way, and as he folded it across, he heard it crackle. He walked over to the window, opening the mouth of the bag as he did so, looking inside. Tucked half into the lining was a piece of paper. He reached in and pulled it out. He recognized Faunt’s spidery hand as soon as he saw it and wasn’t sure whether to be glad or sorry. He had felt all along that there might be some reason even more clandestine than usual for his being here and this letter hopefully would hold the key. He was tired of waiting for the other shoe to drop. Unfolding the paper, he leaned closer to the casement to read. ‘Kit,’ he read. ‘In haste, I must tell you more of what you may find in the mansion of Sir George Carey. Hasler is your quarry, not only because I do not like to lose a man in the field but also because we fear there may be a cuckoo in the nest. A cuckoo that works for Spain.’
A hullabaloo outside broke into Marlowe’s reading. He threw open the window and looked out to see, squat and foreshortened in the courtyard below, three men. The guards were hurrying up from the gate and everyone seemed to be shouting at once. One of the guards gave one of the men a shove that sent him sprawling. It looked as though there might be real trouble when some gardeners came running up, forks and sickles in hand. Marlowe had seen enough brawls to know that angry and excited men and sharp implements rarely ended well. He tucked the paper under his pillow and raced for the stairs.
Down in the hall there was a twitter of maids and the distant boom of Avis in the corridor. Marlowe squeezed past and opened the door a crack. There were by now yet more gardeners and another couple of guards had materialized from the gate house, one rubbing his eyes and the other lacing his breeches; the night shift and one with a rather better social life than the other, Marlowe guessed, seeing the girl slipping out through the far archway, keeping her face to the wall. Opening the door as little as possible, he slipped through and pulled it closed behind him, keeping well back until he could see who was shouting what at whom and who was most likely to swing something deadly first.
The three men who had begun it all were standing at bay on the first step, shouting at the guards who seemed intent on arresting them or at least laying them out one by one. The youngest of the intruders was holding a grubby rag to his forehead, staunching a rivulet of blood which nonetheless was making its way to his chin, where it mingled with a scrubby beard. The other men were older, of an age and looking alike. They had weaselly faces, eyes close together under narrow brows and their mouths seemed very short on teeth, but they were dressed in decent clothes, clean and mended where their work had made it necessary. Looking with his intelligencer’s eye, Marlowe had them down for smallholders, not rich certainly, but not poor. He couldn’t think why they had run so precipitately through the archway and he decided to find out.
He took one step down and edged round the crowd. He plucked the sleeve of a gardener who was clearly feeling underarmed as he was only carrying a hoe. Whilst a sharp hoe could be a weapon in the right hands, these were not the right hands, as the lad was clearly very low in the pecking order of Sir George Carey’s gardeners. The lad turned, spinning on the ball of one foot, hoe at the tilt and ready for anything. Before he could strike, Marlowe reached out one hand and removed the hoe from his grasp, pulling him at the same time away from the crowd.
‘What’s going on here, boy?’ he asked.
‘Who’re you?’ the lad replied, voice going up and down the scale in an adolescent discordance.
Marlowe cocked an ironic eyebrow at the crowd, who seemed to be doing a lot more threatening and brandishing than they had before and everyone had taken another step forward. ‘Is this the time? But since you ask, I am Christopher Marlowe, playwright and poet. So, again, what’s going on here?’
If the boy thought that it was an odd question for a poet to be asking, he didn’t show it. ‘I don’t know, not rightly. George Urry, that’s him over yonder, poking that bastard guard in the chest, he reckons he do have found a body down in one of his drains, down there.’ The boy gestured out to the meadows that lay to the south-west of the castle.
Marlowe pulled the boy’s arm back down to his side. ‘No wild gestures, lad,’ he muttered. ‘You don’t want to lose a hand, I don’t suppose.’
The boy rolled his eyes and folded his arms tightly to his chest. He was by nature a gesturer, finding that a pointing finger could cover more than a thousand words sometimes. He certainly didn’t want to lose any odd extremities to a sickle at his tender years. He nodded with his head to the south-west instead. ‘He says there is a body, dead as a nit, it be, down in one of the drains. He had noticed that his cattle were all drinking from the same trough and that’s not normal, not when there’s another one over the other side o’field. So he went down with his brother.’ He nodded at the almost identical man in the middle. ‘And his boy.’
‘Do we know who the body is?’
‘No. He be stuck head-first in the drain. He’s stinking up the water, that’s why the cattle wouldn’t drink there.’
In London, news like this wouldn’t cause anyone to turn a hair, let alone cause a riot, but he had met the guards himself and he could see how it had happened. Three overexcited and shouting men had barged past them and really the rest was inevitable. He took a deep breath and stepped back into the crowd, raising his voice to make himself heard. Ned Alleyn would have been proud – such projection, such breath control!
He positioned himself between the Urry brothers. ‘Gentlemen!’ he thundered. ‘Can we all calm down for one moment?’ It was a question but it sounded like an order.
Hearing coherent speech from a stranger caught the attention of the crowd and slowly, by ones and twos, fists, forks and sickles began to be lowered. Several people were bleeding now and they were grateful for an excuse to get out of the situation with some kind of dignity and the right number of ears intact.
Marlowe nodded to the guards, who were still in somewhat martial poses, halberds threatening and fists clenched around studded staves. ‘Gentlemen,’ he said to them. ‘If we find there has been a crime committed here, I am sure these estimable gentlemen, the Masters Urry, I believe –’ the smallholders straightened and tried to look important – ‘meant no harm when they ran past you. They have some important news for Sir George.’ He looked from man to man with a raised eyebrow and they nodded. ‘Which they were anxious to share. So, if you would all like to disperse …’
The crowd didn’t move.
‘… or alternatively, wait there quietly, while we find someone in the house who can hear their story, I am sure we can get to the bottom of this in a moment.’
‘You bugger off,’ someone shouted from the crowd. ‘Coming down here with your Lunnon ways, telling honest men what to do.’
There were cries of agreement and a few sickles came back to chest level.
‘There’s some poor bugger dead down in Harry Urry’s drain in Bottom Field. We’ll
…’ The speaker paused for the chuckles he knew would come. Whoever he was, he knew his crowd. ‘We’ll
when we know who he be, and who did put him down that there drain.’
There was scattered applause and Marlowe was almost tempted to give the man a job as warm-up at the Rose. The crowd hung by a thread and Marlowe thought fast.
‘I am a stranger here, it’s true,’ he said. ‘I didn’t mean to interfere, but I didn’t want any of you hard-working gentlemen to do something you might live for a short while to regret. Murder is easy when sickles are flying through the air and I know no one wants to hang for the sake of a dead body, now, do you?’
This time the mutters were more muted and everyone took a couple of steps back, making the crowd bigger, but much more thinly spread. Everyone suddenly wanted an arm’s length between him and his neighbour.
‘Sir George is not at home,’ Marlowe said. ‘Is there a Constable here?’
Every head turned to left and right. Then each one shook.
‘Then how would it be if
, who cannot have been responsible for any of this, having only landed at the quay this afternoon, went with these gentlemen down to the drain to see who this dead man is? I would need a hand or two and perhaps some spades. Is that a good idea?’
The crowd was silent and looked rather confused. They were not used to having their opinions sought by men dressed like Marlowe and sounding as though they had swallowed a primer. Eventually, a few men nodded and others followed suit.
‘That’s splendid.’ Marlowe clapped each Urry brother on the shoulder. He pointed into the crowd and picked out two who had seemed less demonstrative than the rest when it came to shaking sharp things over their head. ‘You and you,’ he said. ‘Come with us.’ Then he turned to George Urry. ‘Will you show the way?’ he said.