Authors: Sarah L. Thomson
Master Green had not been ill-natured toward me, I thought in confusion. He had even been kind. But when his attention had turned to his son…
“Enough,” Will said. “Come, Richard, I’ve an idea.”
We passed by the tireroom, where Will tossed the hose inside, and out into the yard below the stage. “But your father,” I protested. “And my master…”
“Your master is shut up with Henslowe; they’ll be an age at the least. And Master Alleyn will surely keep my father for an hour, fussing over the fit of that doublet. If he did not eat so much marchpane, he would not need to worry.” Will glanced around warily before turning back to me. “Have you ever tried tobacco, Richard?”
“Tobacco? No.” I’d heard of the plant, of course, a discovery from the New World, and I knew that in London people gathered in shops and taverns to puff on pipes full of the dried weed, but my village had been much too small and old-fashioned for anything so newfangled.
“Come, then,” Will said, all his sulkiness gone, grinning with mischief. “Hurry!” And he set off at a run, dodging around players and hirelings and apprentices.
There was no excuse for it, I knew. Will should have
been at his work and my master had not given me leave to go gallivanting about London. No excuse, except that since I’d come to London with the ruins of my old life behind me, I had been grieved and lonely and anxious and frightened nearly to death, but never so close to happy as I was then, running out of the playhouse and into the clear autumn sunlight, following Will Green.
Will took me to a small shop a few streets away from the Rose. The smell of the place tickled the back of my throat. It was like woodsmoke and crushed nuts, a little sweet, a little harsh.
“Enough to fill my pipe, Master Spence, please,” Will said to the owner, a tall, gloomy-looking man with hollow cheeks and a rough voice, as though he had a cold. “And my friend has no pipe of his own. Can you lend him one, and we’ll buy enough tobacco to fill it?”
But I touched Will’s sleeve, feeling a blush fan out across my cheeks. “I have—” I had to clear my throat and start again. “I have no money. I’m sorry, Will.”
Will looked surprised. “Nay, I would not let you pay in any case. ’Tis my thanks for your help a few days ago.” I protested a little, feebly, for Will was only an apprentice and had no money to throw away on gifts, but he did not
heed. He paid three pence for each of us. Master Spence lit our pipes with a coal held in a pair of tongs, and Will carried them outside to a bench where we could sit in the sunlight.
Will showed me how to take the pipe between my teeth and draw in the smoke with my breath. I did as he said, but my first try made me feel as if I were choking.
Will laughed and held my pipe for me while I gasped for air. “’Tis always so, the first time,” he reassured me. “But ’tis very good for the lungs, tobacco. It cures all sorts of ailments. Look!” And he breathed out twin streams of white smoke from his nostrils.
“Like a dragon,” I said, and drew in another careful breath. This time I did not cough, and sighed the smoke back out, watching it drift away on the breeze. Tobacco must loosen the tongue like wine, for before I realized it, I was telling Will the most peculiar thing of all about last night: how Master Marlowe seemed to have forgotten the whole thing by the morning.
“Well, that’s good, if he is no longer angry,” Will said practically.
“But ’twas so strange. He made a jest about the weather….” If there had not been five purple marks on my arm, left there by Master Marlowe’s fingers, I might have thought that some spirit had settled on my chest last
night and breathed a nightmare into me. But dreams do not leave bruises.
“Perhaps he was drunk,” Will offered. “Or it may be ’twas a moneylender he spoke to, or a bawd. Something he’s ashamed to have known. ’Twould be best if you pretended to forget.”
It was honest advice, and well meant, and I’d been foolish to speak of my worries in any case, when I could not say what was worrying me most. I could not tell Will of my own secret, the one Master Marlowe knew.
Perhaps Robin was right. Perhaps I should leave his service after all, simply walk back out into the London streets and be free of this tangle of players and playmakers, secrets and lies and things I was not meant to know. Though there was danger in going—How would I find work? Where would I sleep?—there was danger in staying as well. Master Marlowe knew what faith I cherished. At any moment he might betray me.
But he had known for weeks, or so he claimed. If he planned to hand me over to the law, why had he not done so already?
“Nay, be off! I’ll serve none of thy kind here!”
I nearly dropped my pipe at the shout. Master Spence’s rough, deep voice, when raised, was as formidable as Master Henslowe’s. Peering into the shop, I could only see
the back of a tall, fair-haired man standing before the counter, but he seemed ordinary and inoffensive enough. His voice, when it drifted out to us, had a heavy accent that sounded familiar. He spoke like Mistress Pieters and the man I’d seen in her shop. He must have been a Dutchman.
“I only want tobacco, nothing more. See, I can pay—”
“Oh, thou canst pay, I’ve no doubt! All thy kind are rich enough, taking bread from the mouths of honest men born and raised here. Go on, out of my shop!” Master Spence might have added more harsh words if he had not been interrupted by a fit of coughing, and so the stranger managed to depart without his tobacco, but with some dignity still.
But he was not five paces into the street when a fist-sized glob of mud, thrown from no one could tell where, splattered itself across the shoulder of his fine broadcloth doublet. Then, as he spun around to find the source of the missile, another hit the back of his head. This perhaps had a stone in it, for the man gave a sharp cry of pain.
“Foreign bastard!” shouted a voice, and the man turned again, one hand to his head. Was there red mixed with the brown mud that oozed through his fingers?
“How dost like thine own filth?” another voice demanded. There were five men across the narrow street
from Master Spence’s shop. They were older than Will, but young enough to wear the blue doublets and flat wool caps of apprentices. One held a heavy stick in his hand. The others clustered behind him.
“I have done nothing!” the man shouted.
Beside me, Will groaned softly. “’Sblood, man, just run,” he muttered under his breath.
Laying my borrowed pipe down on the bench, I glanced around for help, but the passersby only slowed to watch with interest or hurried on their way. Master Spence, leaning in the doorway of his shop, looked on with satisfaction.
“Aye, nothing but take work from Englishmen!” the young man with the stick shouted back. More mud flew. The foreigner put up a hand to shield his face and took a pace or two toward his tormentors.
“Aye, come and greet us, Dutchman!”
“A friendly welcome to England!”
“Leave him be, you were best!”
It was Will’s voice, shouting. He was on his feet, fists clenched. The boys turned toward us, and I felt the shock of their malice from across the street. I wanted to shrink back, as from the snap of a whip.
“Aye, art thou one too?” the oldest apprentice sneered. Mud splattered on the wall of Master Spence’s
shop, just over Will’s shoulder.
“Damnation, boy, get away from my shop if thou must interfere in such a thing as this!” Master Spence snapped, pushing Will a step or two forward into the street, so that he stood beside the beleaguered foreigner.
The oldest apprentice lifted his stick. The foreign man laid a hand on the hilt of his dagger. Will tightened his fists.
“The Lord Mayor! I see him!”
It was absolutely ridiculous, of course, but it was the only thing I could think of to do or say. I pointed to the alleyway behind the apprentice boys. Without thinking, they turned to look. Will clapped a hand on the stranger’s shoulder and hissed, “Run!” The man, belatedly, took to his heels down an alleyway. Two of the apprentices went after him. Before the other three could make up their minds who they hated more, the foreigner or his defenders, Will and I were running in the opposite direction.
Will’s legs were longer than mine, but I made up the difference in sheer terror, and kept right by his side as we skidded over cobbles and scrambled around corners. I slipped on a pile of rotting straw, but Will caught my arm and hauled me around the next corner more by his strength than my own. Then it was a straight dash for the doorway of the Rose and safety.
Or it would have been safety, had we reached it.
I was running as fast as I could, when Will suddenly vanished from my side. Later I learned that one of the apprentices had thrown a stick that tangled in his feet and tripped him up. At the time I only knew that he was suddenly gone, and I looked back to see him sprawled full length on the cobblestones.
I did not stop to think that the Rose was perhaps ten yards behind me, or that I was only a girl, no match in height or breadth for the young man who had just kicked Will in the ribs, or the other two ready to join in. I certainly did not pause to consider that brawling in the streets was nothing Rosalind Archer would ever have done.
I hit, I kicked—I think it is possible that I may have bitten one of them. Rage gave me, if not strength, then at least determination. How dared these ruffians, these brawlers, these layabouts who should have been at their work—how dared they set upon Will, three against one? How dared they attack a friendless stranger who had done them no harm? Just as my father had done no harm, and I myself as well. Why should we be forced to walk the streets in fear, never free to be ourselves in safety?
Unfortunately, rage did not give me any skill at fighting, and Will, already bruised and breathless from his fall,
was getting the worst of things himself and unable to aid me. A blow knocked me flat on my back on the cobbles. There was a glint of metal, a flash in my eyes against the bright blue sky. I threw up a hand, palm out, fingers wide, to ward off the blow, and felt a pain, sharp and stinging, as if I’d tried to catch hold of a handful of broken glass.
Then my attacker fell back with a startled cry, and I sat up, bewildered. Sander was standing over me with his fists clenched. Nat and Sam were busy hauling Will’s assailant off him, and Robin was running full tilt to help. And Harry—Harry, of all people, proud, sullen Harry who disdained to keep company with the other crackropes—Harry held the third, oldest apprentice at bay with a rapier at his throat.
Of course, it was only a stage weapon, blunt as an old pen. But it
real enough. The boy was going cross-eyed, trying to see the point an inch below his chin.
“Begone and stay gone,” said Harry in his player’s voice, soft and elegantly threatening but still pitched to reach the ears of the other two apprentices. “Three on two, is’t, and one of the two no more than half-sized? There’s courage, indeed. Keep away from the playhouse in the future, or I’ll not be so generous.” And he lowered his weapon a few inches.
“Playhouse scum!” the young man spat, too angry to
think clearly about who held the sword.
Harry’s rapier flicked up to stop an inch from his eye. One of the other apprentices clambered up from the pavement where Sander had thrown him, took one look at Harry, and fled. Sam and Nat shoved the other after him, and Harry’s opponent scowled but turned slowly, with an air of contempt, to go.
When Harry slashed the rapier like a whip across his backside, however, he went a bit more quickly.
Will sat up, laughing and wincing, with a hand to his ribs. “Well, what kept you? Richard and I were doing well enough on our own, of course, but—Richard?”
I was sitting stock still, looking in fascination and horror at my right hand.
My attacker must have held a knife. That was what I had seen, sharp and bright against the sky. It had cut a slash all the way across my palm, deep and spilling bright red blood freely over my breeches and the muddy cobblestones.
My right hand. My writing hand.
There was a good deal of confusion. I remember Robin steadying me with his arm around my waist and walking me toward the playhouse door. I remember John the porter bellowing for Master Henslowe, and Master Green shaking his son angrily by the shoulder as Will tried to
explain what had happened. Master Alleyn, in his new red doublet with the fur trim, was frowning to have rehearsal interrupted. But Master Marlowe spoke no word to add to the din. He simply laid a hand on my shoulder and steered me, with Master Green following, down the street to a surgeon.
A man was leaving the surgeon’s as we came in, supported between two friends, groaning, clutching a cloth stained with crimson to his mouth, and looking ill indeed.
“That tooth did not wish to come out of his jaw,” said a plump man cheerfully, coming forward as he wiped the blood from his hands. “Perhaps he should have let it rot a few more days. Now what is to do here?”
I did my best not to scream while my hand was stitched back together, salved, and bandaged. After I had drunk a cup of willow bark tea, which helped to settle my stomach, though it did little for the pain in my hand, the surgeon declared that it was fortunate the wound was a clean cut and easily stitched, that I should do very well, and that if any in our party wished for a haircut or a shave, he would be delighted to oblige.
“Not today, I thank you,” Master Marlowe said, eyeing the man’s blood-stained fingers with distaste. “And he’ll be able to use the hand again?”
“Assuredly,” the surgeon promised. “Of course, if you
had taken him to a less skillful surgeon, it might have been most serious. But happily, sirs, I have the highest training.”
“Happily,” Master Marlowe agreed dryly, paying the man’s fee. I winced to see so much silver change hands.
Master Green had watched silently as my hand was treated. Now he came forward. “I am sorry, Master Marlowe, for my son’s part in what happened here,” he said quietly, in a tone that boded no good for Will.
“’Twas not Will’s fault, sir,” I said quickly. I could not bear the thought of Will in yet more trouble with his father over me. “Without his help, that poor Dutchman would surely have been beaten, even killed. He was brave….” I felt a blush creep up my cheeks and bit off the rest of my words. Perhaps it looked odd for Richard to praise Will so lavishly.
“He should have been at his work, not out in the streets,” Master Green said gruffly.
“And I can still write, I am sure of it,” I added to Master Marlowe. “In a day or so my hand will be as good as new.”
Master Marlowe lifted one eyebrow skeptically, as if he could tell that my hand, stiff with bandages and throbbing with every heartbeat, felt as if it would never be as good as new again. But all he said, and that mildly, was, “Get thee home, Richard.”
I made my way slowly over the bridge and back toward
Bishopsgate, cradling my right hand tenderly in my left to spare it any jolts, wondering bleakly what I would do if Master Marlow dismissed me out of hand. Then I smiled a little giddily at the thought, since I was out of hand myself.
But, truly, it was nothing to smile over. I’d had no leave to be out in the streets, I’d cost my master money, and I’d made myself useless for his service—and all this the day after he’d caught me listening to something he clearly did not want overheard. Was it too much to hope of mercy that he would keep me on?
An hour ago, I’d thought, and with relief, of leaving Master Marlowe. But now, half crippled as I was, how would I find a new place? Would I end up like the one-eyed, one-handed beggar of St. Paul’s churchyard, grateful for stale crusts of bread from strangers?