Authors: M. J. Trow
Tags: #Fiction - Historical, #Mystery, #Tudors, #16th Century, #England/Great Britain
But perhaps the Devil was here already.
hat was the day the sun shone. That solitary day, in an otherwise blustery, wet May. It warmed the stone of George Carey’s castle and sent shadows dappling the curtain walls. The lord of the Island led his visitor up the steps behind his mansion and out on to the narrow wall walk. His militiamen, in heavy morions, breast and back plates, trudged and cursed along the crenellations. Yesterday, they had cursed because it was wet and cold. Today, they cursed because it was dry and warm. The pads of moss which had flourished in the damp were now treacherous underfoot as the slimy layer beneath made them as slippery as glass. As they stumbled, slipped and complained their way around their beat, it was a worry to Sir George that these were the men who would have to stand against the veterans of the Duke of Parma, the finest soldier in the world.
‘Do you think they’ll come, Christopher?’ the governor asked, locking his hands behind his back and half turning to the playwright.
‘Who, Sir George?’
‘Why, the dons, man. The Spaniards. The whole island’s bristling with more mercenaries than the King of Spain has confessors. Look, here.’ He pointed suddenly to an arrow slit in the wall. ‘That’s Heynoe’s Loop. The story goes that when the French invaded in 1377, Philip de Heynoe put a crossbow bolt through their commander’s brain, fired from that very spot.’
Marlowe squatted to check the trajectory. ‘Impressive,’ he said.
‘Oh, I don’t know,’ Carey muttered. ‘Anyone can shoot a crossbow. My own dear sister damned near killed me with one once.’
‘Did she?’ Remembering the biceps on Mistress Carey, Marlowe was not too surprised.
‘Oh, she was distraught, of course. In fact, between you and me, she never quite got over it. It was only a scratch and you know how tense everyone gets during a hunt.’
‘She has never touched a crossbow since and she hasn’t come hunting with us either. Which is no bad thing, I suppose. She used to put the men off their stroke. A stunning looking girl she was, in her day.’ Sir George looked to a far horizon that only he could see. ‘Hmm, yes.’ Then he stood upright, squaring his shoulders. ‘But that was then.’ He looked out grimly to where the labourers toiled in the meadows that fell away to the south. ‘Now it’s all calivers and culverins and sakers. Do you know how thick these walls are?’
‘No, sir.’ Marlowe was no fortifications engineer. He was also too polite to guess; there was nothing more embarrassing for guest or host than a guess that got the answer bang on the nose. He waited to be enlightened.
‘Only two feet in places and the centre filled with rubble. That’s where they’ll come.’ He pointed out over the ground rising below the walls. ‘They won’t try the north, the town side. It’s too steep. They’ll never get their cannon up the hill. But over there …’ Carey shook his head and clicked his teeth. ‘Man, it’s a gunner’s dream.’
He walked on, fingering the rough stones as he went. They climbed a long stairway, the stones uneven and worn with the years, to the ancient keep. George Carey, used to the climb as he was, was wheezing by the time he reached the gate. ‘We don’t use this part of the castle any more. Oh, except for Martin, of course; he has a little mathematician’s eyrie. Says it helps him count. But if we
attacked, we can take refuge here. There are ovens and a well – one hundred and sixty feet deep, they say.’ Then he stopped. ‘It’s my fault, of course. If I hadn’t frittered the money away on the hall and the mansion, I might have been able to put up some modern earthworks.’ Carey became confidential. ‘They say Giambelli’s in London.’
‘Federigo Giambelli, the engineer. Apparently the Italian bastard offered his services to Spain but the King turned him down. So, naturally, he came over to us. You heard about the hellburners last year, Drake’s fire ships at Cadiz?’
‘I heard.’ Marlowe nodded.
‘Giambelli.’ Carey tapped the side of his nose. ‘The man’s a genius … Still, there it is. I can’t afford him now.’
‘Er … the garden’s lovely.’ Marlowe looked down at the tangle of verdure behind the chapel.
‘Oh, my dear fellow, here I am, burbling on about fortifications and impending doom. And you have come with your poetry and wit to lighten our lives for a while. Oh, God.’ Carey was frowning down. ‘Johnson, where’s Hasler?’
The governor clattered down the steps, wobbling here and there but making it safely to the bottom.
‘My Lord?’ An ancient gardener was leaning on his hoe in the middle of a green mess, but the Hall obscured his view now and for a moment he could not see Carey at all. He gazed vaguely into the sky.
‘Hasler.’ The governor trotted around the corner of the chapel, Marlowe in tow. ‘The man to whom I paid a fortune to create a knot garden down there. He’s created nothing at all.’
‘I haven’t seen him, sir. Not this three weeks or more.’
‘Hasler?’ Marlowe saw his chance. ‘Not Harry Hasler?’
‘I believe so. Do you know him?’
‘Tall fellow, blond … well, auburn, really.’
‘That’s right. What a small world.’
‘Isn’t it?’ Marlowe smiled. ‘Is he staying here at the castle?’
‘Well, it looks as though he isn’t staying anywhere at the moment.’ Sir George looked again at the gardener, now tickling the ground with his hoe. ‘Why wasn’t I informed, Johnson?’ The old man ignored him, lost in thought as he tended what looked like a rather untidy cabbage patch. Carey gave him another moment to reply, then turned to Marlowe again. ‘No, he wasn’t staying here. He was only a gardener, you know. He has lodgings in the town; Quay Street, I believe. Has he gardened for you, then?’
Marlowe laughed. ‘The last time there was any greenery in Hog Lane, Sir George,’ he said, ‘Brutus was founding London. No, I know him as a poet of sorts. The odd play …’
The governor looked again at his knot garden. Given a lot of imagination and a good nature, he decided that you could just about make out some kind of pattern, but it seemed to peter out about halfway across and the knot unravelled into chaos. He sighed again. Another purseful he would never get back. He turned to Marlowe, still standing there on the path. A pleasant sort of chap. A thought occurred to him and his face brightened.
‘That’s it!’ he shouted, clapping a heavy hand on Marlowe’s shoulder. ‘That’s what we need. A play. To brighten the moment. Everyone’s so keyed up with this wretched Spanish business. Look, I hate to ask it of you, Christopher, when I know you are here to write something more serious, but a masque, perhaps … something with music. A comedy. Nothing heavy. No death or anything like that.’
Marlowe raised both hands. ‘That’s not the sort of thing I write, Sir George.’
‘No, no, my dear fellow, of course not. What was I thinking? No, Dido, Tamburlaine … pure fire and air. No, I just thought … well, a little light relief, you know.’
Marlowe looked at the man. George Carey was a governor on the edge. His little island was the most southerly along the south coast. He was standing in the path of a Spanish juggernaut and everybody knew it. If he wanted to whistle in the dark, it wouldn’t ruin Marlowe’s reputation if he helped him, just this once. ‘Well,’ he said. ‘I do have a man in London who might be able to help. We’ll need timber for a stage and flats, a few costumes. Would your people be prepared to perform?’
‘Well,’ Carey said, lowering his eyelids modestly. ‘I myself have trod the boards. At Trinity, I was Queen of the May. Who had you in mind – in London, I mean?’
‘His name is Sledd. Actor-Manager at the Rose in Southwark. He’s up to his Venetians in something that’s not going too well at the moment. Er … his expenses?’
‘Consider them paid.’ Carey beamed. ‘This is marvellous, Christopher, marvellous. I’ll go and tell the ladies.’ He looked at the knot garden and frowned. ‘I suppose that explains why he made such a hash of my garden.’
‘I beg your pardon, Sir George?’
‘Hasler. If he is a poet and a playwright, that explains why he didn’t turn out to be much of a gardener. I wonder why he even applied for the job?’
Marlowe smiled. ‘A man must live, Sir George. The theatre is a precarious profession.’
Carey nodded, still frowning. ‘It would be for him if his poetry is as bad as his gardening, I should think, wouldn’t you, Christopher? Hmm. Yes.’ But Marlowe had no need to reply. Sir George Carey was climbing the steps to his ramparts again, worrying about the way the Spaniards would come.
That night, having sent his letter to Tom Sledd via Sir George Carey’s man, Kit Marlowe went out on the town. He did not take one of the horses in the governor’s stable, though they were at his disposal, but he did take his dagger, just in case. The warmth of the day had long gone and a chill breeze shook the darling buds that were only now peeping out of their hoods. He followed the little brook that babbled over the stones of the ford and watched the cowherds bringing their lowing animals home. Dim lights burned in the church of St Thomas and drunken soldiery were rolling around the square outside it, laughing and farting to their hearts’ content. If Kit Marlowe had been an Old Testament man, he would have read Gomorrah into Newport and seen the destruction of the Lord. As it was he did not believe in fairy stories and he had places to be.
The house in Quay Street was just like all the others that ran down to the docks where the black ships rode at anchor. It leaned at a precarious angle and ivy clung to the walls. It was hard to tell whether the building was holding up the plant or the plant the building. He tapped at the low oak door with the pommel of his dagger and slipped it away again behind his back.
A young girl dragged the warped timber back. She was perhaps fifteen, with clear blue eyes and light, fair hair underneath a white cap. ‘I was looking for Harry Hasler,’ Marlowe said.
‘Not here, sir,’ the girl said and tried to close the door. But Marlowe had done this before. His boot was in the way; so was his hand.
‘When are you expecting him back?’ he asked the girl.
‘Who is it, Mary?’ a rough voice called from the darkness of the kitchen.
‘No one, father,’ Mary said and again tried to close the door.
‘No one, child?’ Marlowe smiled. ‘Less than kind, lady.’
The man was at the girl’s elbow. ‘Who are you and what do you want?’ he asked.
‘I want Harry Hasler,’ Marlowe told him. ‘And my name is my business.’
‘Never heard of him.’ The man shrugged.
‘I was told he lodged here.’
‘You was told wrong.’ And this time the door did slam. Marlowe took stock of his situation. Master Martin
have misremembered the number in Quay Street, but his description of the house seemed to fit. He was about to knock again when the girl Mary appeared from a side door and beckoned him into the shadows.
‘Sir,’ she whispered, ‘I’m sorry about all this, but Father … well, he don’t like Harry … er … Master Hasler.’
here?’ Marlowe dropped his voice to match hers, in deference to the obvious panic written over the girl’s face, even in the half light.
, sir,’ she corrected him. ‘I haven’t seen him these three weeks.’
‘Did he say where he was going?’
‘No, sir.’ Mary looked downcast. ‘He didn’t say he
Marlowe smiled and lifted up the girl’s chin. ‘Forgive me, Mary,’ he said, ‘but what was Harry Hasler to you?’
‘Nothing, sir.’ She sniffed defiantly. ‘He lodged at our house, that’s all. While he worked on the governor’s gardens up at the castle.’
Marlowe glanced down. He was not familiar with these things, but it did seem as though Miss Mary’s gown was a little stretched across the stomacher. ‘How long has Harry been with you?’ he asked. ‘Staying here, I mean.’
‘Ooh, about three months,’ she said. ‘Forgive me, sir, I have to go. Don’t think the worse of father. These are strange times for us all.’
‘Strange?’ Marlowe asked.
‘The Island, sir,’ Mary whispered, wide-eyed. ‘There are strange goings-on. Ghostly things, if you get my meaning.’
‘I don’t believe I do, Mary,’ he said. ‘Has your father let Master Hasler’s room yet?’
‘No, sir. In case he comes back.’ She suddenly beamed. ‘I hope he comes back.’
‘Yes.’ Marlowe nodded. ‘We all do, Mary.’ He flicked a silver coin from his purse. ‘Is there a time when your father goes out? When I can take a peek at Master Hasler’s room?’
Mary looked horrified. ‘Oh, I don’t know, sir.’ But the reflected light from the coin was dappling her face and she found it hard to look away. ‘Well, maybe tomorrow. He do go to market at cock crow.’
Marlowe flipped the coin and the girl caught it, hiding it quickly in her apron. ‘Cock crow it is, then,’ he said.
By the time Marlowe reached the castle, all was in darkness. The guard at the gate grunted something incomprehensible to him and let him through the wicket. If there were supposed to be guards on the walls after dark, they were not there now; nor was there one on George Carey’s front door.
Marlowe passed the little chapel where the body of Walter Hunnybun still lay and went on up to his rooms in the east wing. In the hallway the expensive clock obtained from Jobst Bürgi, the one that George Carey was pleased to announce to all visitors kept accurate time to the minute, read half an hour past eleven. One of the governor’s wolfhounds had been dozing on the old straw in the corner. He lifted his head briefly, whined once and went back to sleep.
It was at his own door that Marlowe felt a prickle of apprehension at the back of his neck. It was unlatched and he had not left it that way. A careless maidservant, perhaps? Perhaps, but he was taking no chances. Dark corners and shadows in Gloriana’s England were places to avoid; men died in them. He slid the blade out of its sheath and prodded the solid oak door with the tip. It opened noiselessly and he was inside, watching, waiting. There was no one there. The only conceivable hiding place was the Arras in the corner. He made no sound as he crossed the floor, the light through the lattice window illuminating his way. He felt the rough tapestry under his hand and wrenched it aside, dagger ready. Nothing.