Authors: Sarah L. Thomson
Inside the playhouse I found myself in a broad, bare yard. Nutshells, left from the last performance, crunched under my feet. All around us rose the circle of the galleries, three rings of them, one on top of the other. The stage at the far end had a roof supported by pillars, all of it painted blue and red and green and gold, so bright in the sunlight that tears stung my eyes.
In the yard below the stage, two men were engaged in a desperate swordfight. Master Marlowe, with Robin already at his side, ignored them and waved a hand at a boy in a long gown of red brocade who sat on the edge of the stage, swinging his feet and crunching an apple.
Behind him, like something out of a painting of hell, the head of a dragon reared up, its open mouth wide enough for a man to stand up between the rows of sharp teeth.
“Harry!” Master Marlowe shouted across the yard. “Where’s Henslowe?”
The boy swallowed the last bite of his apple and tossed the core carelessly across the yard. “Backstage,” he answered lazily.
“Go fetch him for me.” The boy only yawned. “Do it, or I’ll tell the tireman thou wast eating in that gown!” Master Marlowe threatened. “He’ll nail thine ears to a post and slice them off. Go!”
The boy Harry got gracefully to his feet, smoothed his skirts, and sauntered off through a door at the back of the stage. “Impudent dog,” Master Marlowe grumbled. “I’ll have his ears off myself.”
I caught up with the two of them and scowled at Robin, but he paid me no heed, and I knew that short of laying hands on him and dragging him across the yard, I could not move him. Ignoring me, Robin turned to Master Marlowe. “Are you a player, sir?”
Master Marlowe looked down at him, almost in surprise, as if he’d forgotten we had speech, or were more than inanimate blocks trailing him through London. “A player? No, that I am not.”
I was bewildered again, and Robin’s face fell.
“No, boy, I am not a mere speaker of another man’s words,” Master Marlowe went on. He began to walk toward the stage, maneuvering easily around the two duelists. “I am much more than that.” One of the swordsmen lunged, and his blade seemed to sink deep into his opponent’s chest. The victim gasped, moaned, and doubled over to fall dramatically at my feet, where he looked up at me and winked. I had to step over him to keep up with Master Marlowe, who had reached the stage and climbed easily up on it. He swept his arm in a grand gesture, just as a dark-haired, bearded, harassed-looking man opened a door in the back wall. “In fact, I am the foundation on which the entire Rose playhouse rests. Is’t not true, Henslowe?”
“You are the plague of my life, Christopher, is what you are,” Master Henslowe grumbled. “I’ve a performance to put on, and you must come hanging about—and what is
doing here?” he bellowed, slapping the dragon’s head with one hand.
A man popped out of the dragon’s mouth, startling me so badly that I jumped. “Only shifting some things backstage, master,” he explained mildly.
“Well, get on with it,” Master Henslowe said irritably, and the man disappeared back into the dragon’s gullet. “And you, Kit, what is’t you need? Be quick.”
“Ungrateful wretch.” Master Marlowe sighed, wounded and reproachful. “When see what a gift I’ve brought you. Come up here, boy.” He reached a hand down to Robin, who took it and was hauled easily up onto the stage. “Show him what you did for me.”
Robin obediently flipped into a cartwheel, and then turned a row of somersaults as I stood fuming helplessly in the yard below. When a trapdoor opened suddenly in the center of the stage, Robin nearly tumbled in. A thin, sandy-haired man in a patchwork doublet of green and yellow silk popped his head up through the hole.
“Master Henslowe,” this man said, paying Robin no heed, “there’s a—”
“Speak to the bookkeeper,” Henslowe interrupted him, and the man ducked down again like a rabbit into its hole. “Well, what else, boy?”
Robin did his best trick, a handstand. He was not very good at this yet, and his legs wavered unsteadily in the air. Henslowe frowned.
“You need another boy for that last scene, now that Ned has left you for the Queen’s Men,” Master Marlowe said persuasively. “He’ll not have to do much, just cut capers and run about.”
“Well enough, I suppose,” Henslowe said, just as Robin fell over with a thump.
Robin sat up, rubbing an elbow. “I can do it better,” he said quickly, fervently. “Pardon, masters, let me try again.”
I was startled to see Henslowe chuckle a little. “No need, lad. Bring him around after the performance, Kit, and we’ll find him a place to stay.”
Robin’s smile nearly split his face from ear to ear. But I was not smiling.
My brother was no vagabond player. How could I let him shame our family like this?
But how could I stop him? He would not listen to a thing I said. To argue with him or scold him now would do nothing more than draw attention to myself. And dressed as I was, attention was something I could ill afford.
“And what’s this, another?” Master Henslowe asked, turning his eye on me.
I choked out a horrified denial, which neither of them heard, for Master Marlowe was already talking.
“Now this, Henslowe, you
thank me for. Come up here, boy.” I obeyed, thinking that they would hear me better if I stood on their own level. “Look now,” Master Marlowe continued, and before I could prevent it, he had snatched off my hat. “You see? Zenocrate or Isabel. Harry is getting too old to play the girls’ parts. Soon we’ll have a Helen with a beard on her chin.”
“But masters—,” I objected.
They ignored me. “He’s too old,” Henslowe said, shaking his head. “Hast ever played a part before, lad?”
“No, sir,” I said emphatically. “And to say truth—”
at that face,” Master Marlowe countered impatiently. “He’ll hardly have to act, he looks so much a girl.”
“I am no player!” I almost shouted it. I could have added more, that I was decent and God-fearing and mindful of my family’s reputation even if my brother was not. But Master Marlowe’s last words had frightened me so badly that, when the two men turned to me in surprise, I only ducked my head to look down at the boards of the stage.
“I pray you pardon me,” I mumbled. “I cannot play a part.”
My heart beat quick as a bird’s against my ribs. If they kept looking at me so, they were sure to guess. Master Marlowe had come too close already.
“Come, lad, ’tis nothing but nerves,” Master Marlowe said heartily. I only shook my head, not looking up. Silence was surely the best way to dissuade them.
“Well, Kit, if he does not wish it, that’s all there is,” Henslowe said after a moment.
Master Marlowe looked reproachfully at me. “I’ve
done my best for thee,” he said in a low voice. “Wilt not try thy hand?”
I retrieved my hat from him and pulled it back on. With the relief of having my head covered and my face shadowed again, I could even feel a twinge of remorse. I supposed, by his lights, Master Marlowe had truly tried to do me a kindness. Probably he had no idea how decent people regarded a playhouse. He had not meant to insult me with the offer. I must have seemed churlish and ungrateful to him.
“Master, I thank you, truly,” I said, without looking up. “But I cannot. I’ve reasons for it.” And that was as much as I could tell him.
“But the other, he will do,” Henslowe was saying. “What’s thy name, lad?”
“Robin Archer, master,” Robin said timidly.
“And thou wishest to be an apprentice with the Admiral’s Men?”
Robin nodded, his eyes shining.
“Well, we’ll take thee on trial, then. A week, to see how thou dost. Now, Kit, listen….”
I looked down at the stage, wondering bleakly where I would go when this was all over. Back out into the streets again, I supposed, this time alone. And my faithless traitor of a brother was listening eagerly to the players’ talk, as
if he did not care a jot what became of me.
The boards of the stage were not painted brightly like the rest, but were bare wood, worn smooth by the tread of many feet. A lone sheet of paper drifted about in a slight breeze. It came to rest by my shoe, and I bent down to pick it up, smoothing it carefully. It seemed a player’s part. I read a few lines at random.
Hell hath no limits, nor is circumscrib’d
In one self place, but where we are is hell,
And where hell is, there must we ever be.
I shivered and looked up at the dragon’s head that gaped over the stage. Like this city, it seemed poised to swallow us up, the way prison had swallowed up my father. And this bit of paper hinted that there would be no way out.
Idle thoughts. The dragon’s head was but wood and painted cloth. And the paper was nothing but a player’s speech, insubstantial as air. I held it out to Master Marlowe.
“Sir, I think this may be wanted. ’Tis a player’s part, for—” I squinted at the page again. “For Mephostophilis.”
“Nick has been letting his part lie about?” Henslowe demanded angrily as Master Marlowe took the paper
from me. “I paid for this play, damn him, and he wants to let every other company in London have it for free?”
“You did not pay so very much, as I recall,” Master Marlowe said dryly. But then he looked at me more sharply. “Thou canst read this?”
“Aye,” I answered. Why should he care?
Two men appeared to lay hold of the dragon’s head and push it through the door at the back of the stage. A squeal from a badly tuned viol or rebec came from overhead. “Kit, get off my stage, will you?” Master Henslowe demanded. “Take our new apprentice here and watch the performance, and keep yourself, if you can, from telling him all the players are doing it wrong. Yes, I’m coming!” he shouted to someone I couldn’t see. “Begone, Kit, take these two with you.”
Master Marlowe led us off the stage and into the first row of galleries. He motioned for Robin to take a seat on one of the long wooden benches, but I hesitated.
I was no player’s apprentice. There was no place for me here. But if I walked out of the playhouse now, I did not know where I would go or what I’d do. I did not even know if the three shillings and the few odd pence I had left in my purse would be enough to buy my way into Newgate Prison so I could see my father.
Master Marlowe had seated himself alongside Robin. But he paid no heed to him, frowning instead at me. “What’s thy name?” he demanded.
I remembered in time what my new name was. “Richard Archer, master.”
“And canst read?”
I could not imagine why it mattered so to him
whether or not I was lettered. “I can.”
“Prove it.” He held out to me the paper I had picked up from the stage.
I squinted at the scribbled lines and they came clear to me, although it made little sense, being only the words set down for one player to speak. Lacking the answers to questions, or the questions to answers, it was but a jumble. Still, I cleared my throat and read. “‘So now, Faustus, ask me what thou wilt. Under the heavens. Within the bowels of these elements, where we are tortur’d and remain for ever.’”
Master Marlowe lifted his eyebrows. “And canst write a fair hand as well?”
“Aye, sir, I can write.” Robin had studied Latin at the grammar school with the other boys, but my father had taught me at home. I should have enough knowledge of numbers that no shopkeeper could cheat me, he said, and enough of letters to write down what the household bought and spent. I had been good with my pen; I wrote a fairer hand than Robin. Master Marlowe’s words brought back, with a sting of tears in my eyes, the bitter smell of ink, the honey-colored surface of the old table in the back of the warehouse, and my father’s presence at my shoulder, watching as the quill in my hand scratched steadily over the paper.
“Indeed,” Master Marlowe said, eyeing me as if I were a horse at market. “If ’tis true, I might have use for thee. The law will take thee up for a vagabond if thou’rt not in service, so thou mayst as well be in mine.”
The word “no” sat on my tongue. I did not wish to be this man’s servant, and it was not my pride that revolted at the idea. To be a servant was not grand, but it was honest.
But in truth, I was baffled, and in my confusion, even afraid. Why should Master Marlowe be so kind? He had offered twice now to save me from begging in the streets, but he hardly looked at me, leaning back on the bench, his legs stretched out before him, his eyes on the empty stage. His careless manner made it seem as if my life were a matter of indifference—he might save it or lose it, it was all the same to him.
Nevertheless, I knew I’d be a fool to throw aside this second chance. Work, food, a bed, wages even—I must take it and be grateful. “Master, I thank you,” I said as humbly as I could. “God reward you for your kindness.”
Master Marlowe made an impatient gesture with one hand. “’Tis not kindness. I’ll take thee on trial for a week. If thou canst do the work I need, I’ll feed and clothe thee. If not, I’ll not keep thee. And by this light, do not start a rumor that I have a conscience. My reputation would never survive it.”
The porter had opened the doors and people were starting to stream into the playhouse as I sat down on the bench by the side of my new master. Apprentices and servants and townspeople mindful of economy pushed forward to stand close to the stage, while the more prosperous filled up the galleries. I stared in astonishment as a man with skin the color of coal found a seat in the galleries near to us. An elegant woman in a long black cloak and a silk mask, attended by a gentleman in deep red satin, climbed to the rooms over the stage and sat there at her ease, as if she were unconscious that all eyes were upon her. In the little room next to her, the musicians were practicing. Sweet scraps of tunes from a lute and a viol drifted out into the playhouse, and a man put a hautboy to his lips and blew a silvery scattering of notes, like raindrops tossed by the wind, over the heads of the crowd.
“Master Marlowe?” Robin asked shyly.
“If you are not a player, sir, what is’t you do here?”
“Hast not guessed? I am a playmaker. ’Tis my play they are about to perform. And very poorly, too, no doubt.”
So that was why he had claimed to be the foundation of the playhouse. The players would have no words to speak but for him.
“Ho there!” Master Marlowe’s attention had been caught by someone just entering the playhouse. He waved a hand. “Tom! Tom Watson!”
The man who came to put his elbows on the railing of our gallery was taller than Master Marlowe by a handspan, handsome and well made. His crisp, white ruff set off a thin, dark face. “Ah, Kit, I thought I’d find you here,” he said.
“Where else? Are you not teaching this day?”
“The brat is sick, or says he is,” Master Watson answered, and he cast his eye upon Robin and myself. “And who are these?”
“This one I plan to try for a servant,” Master Marlowe said. “And the other will be an apprentice at the Rose.”
“An apprentice here?” Master Watson turned his attention to Robin. “Brave heart. Dost truly dare to appear in such a play as this?”
“Aye, I think so,” Robin said uncertainly. “If I have the skill.” He glanced at Master Marlowe to see if this was the right answer.
“Has no one told thee? Shame, Kit, you should have warned him. Dost know, boy, that there is a scene in this play where the devil himself is summoned?”
“Enough, Tom, ’tis foolishness,” Master Marlowe objected.
His friend ignored him. “And knowst that often the players have made a count of who is on stage when the devil is called—and they find one man too many?” His voice dropped dramatically. “Pray, who dost think that extra man might be?”
“Go to,” Master Marlowe snapped. “It only proves that no player has the wit to count above five. Mind you, if the devil himself were to appear on the stage, I would not object. No doubt he could play the part better than Nick.”
I stifled a gasp of alarm at such careless talk, and Robin looked around as if afraid that the devil might take Master Marlowe at his word. Master Watson only laughed.
“I’ll find a seat, then, for they’re about to start. Kit, I must speak a word with you—”
“Not just now,” Master Marlowe said quietly, and Master Watson moved off as the trumpet sounded and the play began.
A scholar in a long, black robe sat on the stage, poring over his books. I shuddered as he tossed aside philosophy, medicine, law, and even religion, to seize on black magic as the only study fit for a wise man.
Master Marlowe was quiet through the early scenes, only once or twice hissing through his teeth and muttering, “Too fast, too fast.” But when the scholar chalked symbols on the floor and chanted Latin and conjured
spirits, he fell silent, as did the whole audience. We all held our breath, and when a mighty figure, with black skin and horns springing from his forehead, leaped up from the trapdoor as if he’d come from the bowels of hell, everyone gasped at once, with a sound like wind in the leaves.
“‘Now, Faustus, what wouldst thou have me do?’” the devil roared. A woman in the audience shrieked. Master Marlowe, with his elbows braced on his knees, dropped his forehead onto his clenched fists.
,” I heard him groan. “Ranting, raving, mad, fantastical bombast…” And he didn’t look up for the rest of the scene.
I could not take my eyes from the stage, where the scholar, Faustus, carelessly bargained his soul away. He repented in the end, but it was far too late. Even Master Marlowe sat quiet and attentive as small devils leaped out of the dragon’s mouth I had seen earlier and capered around the stage. They were only boys, I realized, most of them Robin’s age. Though the summer sky was bright overhead, the stage seemed dark, somehow, and thunder rumbled. “‘My God, my God, look not so fierce on me,’” Faustus moaned. With a roar of triumph, the devil seized him and hauled him back between the dragon’s teeth.
Robin was staring openmouthed at the stage. I felt myself shivering. Would the devil and Faustus really come
hand in hand to take their bows? It seemed impossible. But they did, and the crowd burst into applause as Master Marlowe sat hunched over with his elbows on his knees and scowled.
He didn’t stir while the playhouse emptied. At last, when the audience had all departed, he got up and, without a word to us, climbed over the gallery railing, dropped easily on the other side, vaulted up on the stage, and disappeared through the door at the back.
Robin would have followed him, but this was my first chance to speak to him alone, and I did not mean to waste it. “Robin, how couldst thou?” I demanded. “A player’s apprentice? For shame!”
“’Tis not so terrible,” Robin muttered sulkily, not meeting my eyes. “’Tis no crime. And what else was I to do? We’ve no money now.”
“We could have found some other work.”
“Cleaning privies? Sweeping horse dung off the streets?”
“Dost think we came to London to make thee a player? Didst think of our father at all?”
Robin’s face went white and then flushed red across the cheekbones. “Aye, I did,” he said coldly, and lifted his eyes to my face at last. “And thou’rt one to speak of shame. What will our father say when he sees thee?”
I felt as if he’d slapped me. Leaving me sick and stunned, he climbed over the gallery railing and followed Master Marlowe backstage.
How could he say such a thing to me? My own brother, who knew well enough what had happened—had nearly happened—yesterday. How dare he? Hot fury burned away my shock, and I leaped up and went after him. But I did not have a chance to start another argument with Robin, because a different confrontation was already taking place.
The space behind the stage seemed much too narrow to contain all the people inside it. A man with spectacles on his nose brushed past me, his arms overflowing with silk and velvet and lace. I saw the boy Harry, now in his proper clothes, perched on a ladder that led up to the chamber above the stage. The tall, dark-haired man who had played Faustus stood talking to Henslowe, idly stroking the neat triangle of a beard on his chin, while the devil himself sat on a chest and scrubbed with a damp cloth at the charcoal that covered his face.
It was the devil Master Marlowe was berating. “Nick!” the playmaker exploded just as I slipped through the door. “What do you call
? Bellowing, howling, bleating—are you a dog, a goat, or a cat in heat?”
The player Nick, his face now smeared half black and
half white, seemed no more than amused. “’Tis what people expect, Kit, when they look at the devil,” he said in a tone of patient reason.
“Expect!” Master Marlowe spat. “Do you think the devil walks among us like
, horns and tail and all?” He had by now collected an audience of players, who gathered around, some frowning, some smiling in delight at a rousing scene. “Do you think the devil knows nothing of subtlety?” Master Marlowe went on. “Do you think he’s never heard of craft? I tell you, if the devil were among us right now, none of you would know it. He walks like a man, looks like a man; he gets souls by whispering, not by shouting.”
“Well, I could not say, Kit, not having such a close acquaintance with him as you do,” Nick said easily.
The others chuckled, and the man who had been Faustus clapped. “Well played!” he called out, and bowed toward Nick.
Henslowe held up his hands. “Enough! Pray, Master Alleyn, do not encourage them. Kit, the way he plays it fills up the galleries, and that should satisfy you. It does me, at all events. Out, now, let them set the stage up for tomorrow. Rehearsal in the morning, all. Where’s our new apprentice?”
Master Marlowe looked around as if he’d forgotten
that we existed. Henslowe saw us at the same moment. “Robin, is’t? This is Master Cowley. Thou’lt be lodging at his home. Tomorrow thou’lt come to rehearsal, and we’ll begin teaching thee what thou needst to know.”
Master Cowley was a kindly looking man with a grizzled beard of black and white. Thinking back, I remembered that he had played one of Faustus’s friends. “Come, lad,” he said warmly to Robin. “I’ve two other crackropes lodged with me, so thou’lt make friends soon enough.”
Aye, friends among players and other riffraff of the streets. Well enough, if he preferred it. Why should I mind?
“Come, boy,” Master Marlowe said to me as he turned to go.
Robin looked at the ground, refusing to meet my eyes. But he muttered, “Farewell, Richard.”
I tightened my lips and, without a word, followed my new master back across the stage, out of the playhouse, and into the streets of London.
It would not be for long. That was what I vowed to myself as I hurried behind Master Marlowe. I was on a week’s trial as a servant, and Robin as an apprentice. By the end of that time, I would have found a way to change things.
I’d hardly been two hours in Master Marlowe’s service;
I could not ask him for leave at this moment to find Newgate. But tomorrow, no matter what else took place, I would make my way to the prison. My father would tell me what was best to do; he would order Robin away from the playhouse. My brother might pay no heed to me, but he would be bound to obey his father’s word.
By a week’s end, if not sooner, this would be over. Robin would no longer be a ’prentice player and I would no longer be in service with a man who spoke as if he were on terms of close acquaintance with the devil himself.
In the meantime I kept close at Master Marlowe’s heels as he led me back to London Bridge, and for the second time in two days I crossed its span. He walked rapidly north along a wide street, past the fish markets I had seen earlier, past churches and houses and taverns and store-fronts. I was nearly breathless, trying to keep pace with him.
We had walked perhaps a mile when I almost trod on a heap of greasy rags by the roadside. I nearly shrieked aloud as the rags moved and a bare, skinny arm thrust out. A face, too, appeared under a ragged cowl, but I could not tell if this were a man or a woman.